Grand Unified Theory of humor?

Peter McGraw is a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado. He thinks he's found the Grand Unified Theory of humor. It starts with the idea that tickling is only funny when it's done by someone you know.

McGraw and Caleb Warren, a doctoral student, presented their elegantly simple formulation in the August 2010 issue of the journal Psychological Science. Their paper, “Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny,” cited scores of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists (as well as Mel Brooks and Carol Burnett). The theory they lay out: “Laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign.” That is, they perceive a violation—”of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bedpan, strange behaviors), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviors)”—while simultaneously recognizing that the violation doesn’t pose a threat to them or their worldview. The theory is ludicrously, vaporously simple. But extensive field tests revealed nuances, variables that determined exactly how funny a joke was perceived to be...

The ultimate takeaway of McGraw’s paper was that the evolutionary purpose of laughter and amusement is to “signal to the world that a violation is indeed OK.” Building on the work of behavioral neurologist V. S. Ramachandran, McGraw believes that laughter developed as an instinctual way to signal that a threat is actually a false alarm—say, that a rustle in the bushes is the wind, not a saber-toothed tiger. “Organisms that could separate benign violations from real threats benefited greatly,” McGraw says.

The professor was able to plug the BVT into every form of humor. Dirty jokes violate social norms in a benign way because the traveling salesmen and farmers’ daughters that populate them are not real. Punch lines make people laugh because they gently violate the expectations that the jokes set up. The BVT also explains Sarah Silverman, McGraw says; the appalling things that come out of her mouth register as benign because she seems so oblivious to their offensiveness, and “because she’s so darn cute.” Even tickling, long a stumbling block for humor theorists, appears to fit. Tickling yourself can’t be a violation, because you can’t take yourself by surprise. Being tickled by a stranger in a trench coat isn’t benign; it’s creepy. Only tickling by someone you know and trust can be a benign violation.

He managed to ask Louis CK about his theory. CK's response: “I don’t think it’s that simple. There are thousands of kinds of jokes. I just don’t believe that there’s one explanation.”

One takeaway from this "benign violation" idea (if true) is the importance of making an audience feel comfortable and safe. This is the problem with so many mics and crappy shows where there's only a few people in the room and there's some dude onstage telling jokes about rape or whatever. At that point, things stop feeling benign and start to feel genuinely creepy. It starts to enter "tickled by a stranger" zone.

If that's the energy of the room, your first job becomes getting everyone unified and feeling like they're in "a happy place." It's sort of like being the host for your own set.

The article ran in Wired's recent Humor issue which also has a Q&A between Chris Hardwick and Andy Samberg and The Secrets to Lonely Island’s Success.

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