The Benign Violation Theory of humor from HuRL
August 27, 2010 12:47 PM Subscribe
The "Benign Violation Theory
" posits that for something to be funny, three conditions must be met. First, there must be a violation of the norm. Second, the violation must be perceived to be benign. Last, both these perceptions must occur simultaneously.
This theory (pdf
) was developed and is currently being tested by Dr. Peter McGraw and the Humor Research Lab (HuRL)
in Boulder Colorado.
Falling down the stairs, a physical violation, is only funny if nobody's actually hurt. A dirty joke(nsfw) trades on moral or social violations, but it's only going to get a laugh if the person listening is liberated enough to consider risqué subjects such as sex benign. Puns can be seen as violations of linguistic norms, though only cerebral types and grammarians care enough about the violation to chuckle...
Increasing the psychological distance between an extreme violation and the person who's supposed to get the joke makes it more more benign and funnier. Or, as Mel Brooks put it, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."