“[…] He was called by many ‘Pier den Drol’. This is why one sees few pictures by him which a spectator can contemplate seriously and without laughing, and however straightfaced and stately he may be, he has at least to twitch his mouth or chuckle.” (Karel van Mander, Schilder-boeck, 1604) According to Van Mander, nobody is unmoved by the humourist pinpricks of Bruegel. That was also his reputation.
Bruegel availed himself of a variety of forms of humour: uncomplicated jokes, visual humour, paradoxes, visual rhymes and exaggeration. Bruegel's imagery is exceptionally rich and layered. Humour is one of his strategies to create numerous layers of meaning.
We find very direct humour in Ice Skating before the Gate of Saint George (ca. 1558). People on the left side are amusing themselves delightfully with the antics of some of the skaters. The crazy actions of a group of apes are completely straightforward in The Pedlar Robbed by Monkeys (1562). While the man is sleeping, the jolly gang indulge themselves. One monkey is sitting by the buttocks of the peddler and is holding his nose shut. An other one is relieving himself in his cap. The little monkey on top of the peddler is in search of insects in his hair.
Humorous imagery is found, for example, with the woman on the left-hand side of the drawing Summer (1568). She carries a bulging fruit basket on her head, but nothing more is to be seen of that head and it appears to be replaced by the basket. Also in the painting Haymaking (1565), visual discovery plays a part.
Bosch-like, absurd humour primarily arises in the prints with moralistic-religious content. Although the message in these works is sombre, Bruegel counters this with humour. Bruegel receives the nickname ‘Pieter the Joker’ (Pier den drol) according to Van Mander because of his predilection for Bosch-like 'spoockerijen en drollen'.