Similar to the Incongruent Theory, Spencer and Freud believe that the unexpected and uncomfortable cause laughter. These humor theories are executed by future authors like Zora Neale Hurtson, in her musical Polk County. In this musical from the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston uses dynamic and endearing characters to keep the audience laughing and engaged.
According to Descartes, one of the only causes of laughter is “the surprise of admiration or wonder” (Descartes 22). A humorous situation in Polk County is when people who should be in charge and have the power are scared and cower beneath the people who should have less power. For example, the women who live in the quarters exasperate Quarter Boss, bringing him to say “All right! All right! Big Sweet is the bellcow, and to hell with it!” (Hurston 286). The audience finds this entertaining and humorous as the man whose name is Boss is dominated by a group of women led by Big Sweet. The admiration for Big Sweet and her friends’ confidence and fearlessness mixed with the wonder of how Quarter Boss lost all control leads to laughter.
Spencer’s hydraulic theory of laughter is that “nervous energy builds up within our bodies and requires release through muscular movement” (Spencer 99). We can see this both in the audience and on stage in Act 1 Scene 2 of Polk County, when Big Sweet and Leafy first meet. In the play, the nervous energy causes Leafy and Big Sweet to smile and laugh together instead of arguing as “Big Sweet gives in, takes her foot down, stands akimbo and [makes] an attempt to conceal her admiration under rough good humor” (Hurston 298). Similarly, the audience gets nervous as they are expecting to witness a fight on stage, and are pleasantly surprised and relieved to see the two characters they expected to argue actually getting along, being friendly with one another.
Overall, Hurston’s Polk County uses humor explained by Descartes and Freud to both entertain and teach the audience about culture and power in the American South.