APRIL 1, 2014
A QUEST TO UNDERSTAND WHAT MAKES THINGS FUNNY
POSTED BY SHANE SNOW
What would happen if Communism were introduced to Saudi Arabia? Nothing—at first. But soon there’d be a shortage of sand.
This—one of many political jokes circulating inside the Soviet Union during the late Cold War—is Joel Warner’s favorite. Warner is the co-author, with Peter McGraw, of “The Humor Code,” which was released on April Fool’s Day. “It can be analyzed all sorts of ways,” he told me. “Did Soviet citizens tell jokes like this as a form of coping, of using humor to lessen their psychological distress? Or was it a reflection of changing attitudes and growing unease among the populace? Or was the joke actually planted by the K.G.B., allowing folks to make light of their plight instead of fighting against it?”
Warner and McGraw recently travelled the world in an attempt to answer a question that has eluded us for millennia: What makes things funny? Laughter is thought by evolutionary biologists to be an indicator, in pre-historic tribes, that all was well. Comedy has long been a source of relief for sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder and for the terminally ill. In 2010, Raffi Khatchadourian wrote about an international laughter-yoga movement. And, recently, a Northwestern University professor named Jeffrey Burgdorf found that “tickling” rats to the point of inducing “laughter” might help make them resilient to depression and anxiety. But a scientific explanation for humor has been hard to pin down.
Many academics consider their humor-researching counterparts unserious, McGraw said. “It’s just by nature not a serious thing,” he told me. “So that association carries over.” And yet, in March, Salvatore Attardo, the dean of humanities, social sciences, and arts at Texas A&M-Commerce, published a two-volume, nine-hundred-and-eighty-four-page sledgehammer called the “Encyclopedia of Humor Studies,” meant as an introduction for the growing number of humor-research students in today’s universities. “It’s become respectable,” Attardo said. “There is an explosion of research, and in many disciplines.”
As with other psychological experiences, like happiness or regret, scholars have long hunted for a formula that can explain humor. The oldest known humor theory, known as Superiority Theory, dates back to Plato and Aristotle. It says that we find humor in others’ misfortunes and shortcomings. This may say more about Ancient Greek social dynamics than it does about modern humor—when one gets past “The Three Stooges” or YouTube, that is. It fails to explain, for example, knock-knock jokes. Freud one-upped Superiority Theory with Relief Theory, which posited that humor is a sort of release valve for our inner desires. The theory explained dirty jokes, but not others, like puns. In the seventies, linguists rallied behind a more palatable idea, called Incongruity Theory: essentially, that we laugh at surprises, violations of our expectations. This explained verbal punch lines, slapstick, and other humor, like April Fool’s pranks. But Incongruity Theory had a hard time explaining why we laugh when tickled. And it managed to mispredict things that aren’t funny. The death of a very young person, for example, is surprising and incongruous, but hardly humorous.
These days, many scholars still champion versions of Incongruity Theory, including such prominent figures as Victor Raskin, a linguistics professor at Purdue University and the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Humor, who refined Incongruity Theory into the Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humor, in 1985. Raskin and Attardo expanded this, in 1991, into the General Theory of Verbal Humor. “The idea is that every joke is based on a juxtaposition of two scripts,” Raskin said. “The punch line triggers the switch from one script to the other. It is a universal theory.”
McGraw doesn’t buy it. He claims that, while linguists rely on thought experiments to back up Incongruity-based theories, researchers have used the scientific method to disprove it. In 1974, for example, two University of Tennessee professors asked undergraduate students to watch Bill Cosby videos. Before each of Cosby’s punch lines, the professors paused the tape and asked the subjects to predict the joke. Then they monitored other groups whose members watched the same tapes, and recorded which jokes they laughed at the hardest. It turned out that the jokes that had been rated by the first group as easier to predict generally drew more laughs than the unexpected punch lines.
McGraw found his preferred universal theory in a 1998 journal article by a Stanford University researcher named Thomas Veatch. Veatch proposed that humor emerges when something seems wrong or unsettling but is actually benign. (His favorite joke was the following: Why did the monkey fall from the tree? Because it was dead.) Nobody paid much attention to Veatch’s theory, until McGraw, with a graduate student named Caleb Warren, dug it up a decade later and dubbed it the Benign Violation Theory.
Benign Violation explained why the unexpected sight of a friend falling down the stairs (a violation of expectations) was funny only if the friend was not seriously injured (a benign outcome). It explained Jerry Seinfeld’s comedic formula of pointing out the outrageous things (violation) in everyday life (benign), and Sarah Silverman’s hilarious habit of rendering off-color topics (violation) harmless (benign) in her standup routines. It explained puns (benign violations of linguistic rules) and tickling (a perceived physical threat with no real danger).
And it explained something that had particularly vexed Incongruity theorists: humor’s ability to help people cope with stress. Transforming actual violations into benign violations also explained the famed hospital clown Patch Adams’s ability to cheer up terminally ill children, Chris Rock-style racial humor that manages not to be racist, and political satire.
Questions about McGraw’s theory remain. “It’s a perfectly decent piece of work,” Raskin says. But, he adds, “It’s not at all universal.” Attardo tells me he’s “not a fan.” First of all, he believes that a unified theory of humor is impossible—“much like you can’t have a supertheory of poetry or justice that answers everything.” And he finds Benign Violation’s simplicity underwhelming. “These are basic, not that exciting things,” he said. “The question is what kind of violation? How do you know it is benign?”
McGraw admits that Benign Violation Theory has some holes. (“I really haven’t nailed why things that are absurd are funny,” he admitted.) And yet he feels that a unified theory is within reach, and that skeptics will come around to Benign Violation Theory in time. I had been asking him to tell me his favorite joke, and, on a recent evening, he called me on the phone and said, “Ask me the secret of good comedy.”
I replied, “What’s the sec—”
“Timing!” he blurted.
It’s an old joke. McGraw fell flat when he tried standup himself, as he and Warner document at the beginning of the book. Armed with a sweater vest and a handful of well-crafted benign violations, the only guffaws the fumbling professor elicited at Denver’s Squire Lounge occurred when the m.c. took back the mic and said, “He has this theory, see … well, who cares. Obviously, it’s wrong!”
Shane Snow is a technology journalist in New York City.
Photograph by Wayne Miller/Magnum.