Arts & Culture
Getting Serious About the Science of Humor
Let me ask you a question: what makes you laugh?
I'm usually the smartest person in the room. Granted I'm usually alone when i think that but it still feels good though.
— Jim Gaffigan (@JimGaffigan) May 23, 2012
If that made you chuckle, do you understand why?
University of Colorado Associate Professor Peter McGraw is trying to understand the universal concepts behind what makes us laugh. McGraw’s Humor Research Lab—aka HuRL—on the Boulder campus has done studies in recent years testing his theory of benign violation, which attempts to explain why some things are funny, and why other things aren’t so funny.
Now Pete McGraw is hitting the road with writer Joel Warner to test this theory for the forthcoming book, The Humor Code: A Scholar & A Skeptic Travel the World in Search of What Makes Things Funny.
They’ll talk about their recent travels and findings at a Denver Art Museum event 6 p.m. on Friday, which will feature comedians, curators and cartoonists.
KUNC’s Grace Hood spoke with the duo to get a preview.
GRACE HOOD, REPORTER:
First, the theory. McGraw has published research papers on the concept of benign violation. It's the idea that humor comes from mixed emotions that are both positive and negative.
PETE MCGRAW: The other thing that we found is good support for this idea that humor is tragedy plus time, or more generally tragedy plus distance. So it doesn't have to be just time, it could be social distance, bad things happening to other people, and what is that how is that a benign violation, well distance helps remove some of the threat with having fallen down the stairs or having some bad breakup in life or whatever it may be that it helps people derive some delight even from these tragedies.
An Introduction to a Benign Violation Account of Humor
HOOD: So there's a real dark underside to what we find funny?
MCGRAW: I think so.
HOOD: Now I want to bring Joel into the conversation. You two have traveled to a number of different countries. Tell me about your recent trip to Denmark you talked to some of the artists involved in the Mohammed cartoon controversy.
JOEL WARNER: They literally now have to live under 24-7 security. They've had threats on their lives, and so we looked at why would a simple funny drawing be so threatening to somebody that someone would have to risk their own lives.
Lars Refn talks about his Muhammed Cartoon
HOOD: And so Pete, how is all this connected to your overarching theory of benign violation?
MCGRAW: So when you think about this idea, it essentially says that you have to take a risk if you want to make people laugh. It helps explain the sort of two sides of failures at trying to make people laugh. You can fail in that you bore people, or you can fail in that you offend people. And it really highlights the challenge of trying to create this kind of emotional experience in others, especially when you don't know those other people very well, or when those other people are on some other side of the globe, or on some other side of a set of religious principles...
HOOD: And that idea of failure, it seems like every now and again we see a clip of a comedian who has maybe gone too far in their stand up routine, and a video gets released and then they have to apologize for what they said. What are your thoughts on that?
MCGRAW: Comedy may fail, and may only fail briefly, and only fail with 50 or 60 people, now can fail big, on a big stage. And it may fail in part because the people who are receiving the joke weren't intended to receive the joke. They are not the type of person who’s in the audience, they are not in the mindset of the person whose in the audience, they haven't had a few drinks. They haven't been warmed up by previous comedians.
And this was evident to us in our trip to Denmark. These political sort of caricatures that were created that ended up being so offensive and so explosive prior to the Internet, wouldn't have had as much of an effect because they would have shown up in a paper, and the people who read the paper aren't the people who be offended by them.
HOOD: We've gotten to some serious topics here. I was hoping you could end the interview by explaining what the world's funniest joke is.
MCGRAW: I'll leave it to Joel. Joel knows it better than me.
WARNER: I think it was the year 2001, this British professor decided to set out and find the world's funniest joke. He did so by spending a year with this website where he had people submit as many jokes as they could and had people rate them, and what it came down to was the winner...
Two guys are hunting in the woods and all of a sudden one of them keels over and is not looking good. So the other guy pulls out his cell phone and calls 911. And he says “help me help me my friends in major trouble he's lying down, I can't tell what’s going on.” So the person said, ok first check to make sure if he's dead. Then you hear a gunshot and he comes back on and says “ok, now what?” Silence. See, not a very good joke and actually the professor who did this now he says it's basically the world's blandest joke because in order to offend the least amount of people is basically what the world's funniest joke is as opposed to one that so many people find hilarious.
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