One Professor’s Attempt to Explain Every Joke Ever

Ff_humorcode5_f Joel Warner in Wired:

[Peter] McGraw didn’t set out to become a humorologist. His background is in marketing and consumer decisionmaking, especially the way moral transgressions and breaches of decorum affect the perceived value of things. For instance, he studied a Florida megachurch that tarnished its reputation when it tried to reward attendees with glitzy prizes. The church’s promise to raffle off a Hummer H2 to some lucky congregant was met with controversy in the community—what the hell did that have to do with eternal salvation? But when McGraw related the anecdote at presentations, it prompted laughter—a holy Hummer!—rather than repulsion. This confused him.

“It had never crossed my mind that moral violations could be amusing,” McGraw says. He became increasingly preoccupied with the conundrum he saw at the heart of humor: Why do people laugh at horrible things like stereotypes, embarrassment, and pain? Basically, why is Sarah Silverman funny?

Philosophers had pondered this sort of question for millennia, long before anyone thought to examine it in a lab. Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Hobbes posited the superiority theory of humor, which states that we find the misfortune of others amusing. Sigmund Freud espoused the relief theory, which states that comedy is a way for people to release suppressed thoughts and emotions safely. Incongruity theory, associated with Immanuel Kant, suggests that jokes happen when people notice the disconnect between their expectations and the actual payoff.

But McGraw didn’t find any of these explanations satisfactory. “You need to add conditions to explain particular incidents of humor, and even then they still struggle,” he says. Freud is great for jokes about bodily functions. Incongruity explains Monty Python. Hobbes nails Henny Youngman. But no single theory explains all types of comedy. They also short-circuit when it comes to describing why some things aren’t funny. McGraw points out that killing a loved one in a fit of rage would be incongruous, it would assert superiority, and it would release pent-up tension, but it would hardly be hilarious.

These glaringly incomplete descriptions of humor offended McGraw’s need for order. His duty was clear. “A single theory provides a set of guiding principals that make the world a more organized place,” he says.

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.”