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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."
posted by cosmac (106 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite

 
Does this give us the long-awaited explanation of Groening's Paradox? ("The French are funny, sex is funny, and comedies are funny; but French sex comedies are not funny.")
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 12:49 PM on August 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


I prefer the following rule: "For any proposed set of criteria for what is funny, it will take you less time to think of an exception to those rules than to remember what you had for dinner last night."
posted by saturday_morning at 12:51 PM on August 27, 2010


but what about the times when it is funny when someone gets hurt? or am I just fucked up? because seriously I thought it was the funniest damn thing in the world when Dick Cheney shot his buddy...and there wasn't much benign about that...
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:52 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Saw a cartoon once that aptly conjugated this.

First panel: stand-up comedian holds up a sign that says I'M FUNNY. --There's some titters from the audience.

Second panel: nervous stand-up comedian holds up a sign that says YOU'RE FUNNY. --Growls and grumbles from the audience.

Third panel: stand-up comedian holds up a sign that says THEY'RE FUNNY. Uproarious laughter from the audience, he's all relieved smiles, everybody but THEM's a winner.

"Benign" is a terribly charitable word for it. I supposed we'd have to go to German to find some crunchy compound noun that means benign to me but not necessarily anyone else so watch your step okay?
posted by kipmanley at 12:53 PM on August 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


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.

I see, so today is Reverse Mefi Day, and this is the response to the rape argument going on over in MetaTalk, right?
posted by mannequito at 12:54 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


French sex comedies are not funny because when you watch one you get this disturbing revelation that real French people are having lots of sexy fun right now (because they are French, of course), and you're just watching a dumb movie.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:54 PM on August 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

from Mel Blanc
posted by jasper411 at 12:54 PM on August 27, 2010 [5 favorites]


That reminds me of an old joke:

Q: How many Assistant Professors of Marketing and Psychology at the University of Colorado does it take to remove the fun from humor?

A: Apparently only one.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 12:54 PM on August 27, 2010 [11 favorites]


This flies in the face of the scientifically proven world's funniest joke.

So I guess saturday_morning is right.
posted by Etrigan at 12:55 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


On the other hand, French porn comedies are wonderful, because you can fuck and laugh right along with them. mmmm, Brigitte Lahaie.
posted by seanmpuckett at 12:56 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


jasper411 - I think that's a Mel BROOKS quote. Although I'd love to hear it in Yosemite Sam's voice.
posted by Slack-a-gogo at 12:57 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Under this theory, I suppose racial humor works on the idea that no "real" humans get hurt?
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:59 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I heard this same thing, seemingly decades ago -- the source of humor is incompatible frames of reference.

"My dog has no nose."
"How does he smell?"
"I just gave him a bath, so he smells great."

Incompatible frame of reference: The verb "smell" has several valencies.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:59 PM on August 27, 2010


jasper411 - I think that's a Mel BROOKS quote. Although I'd love to hear it in Yosemite Sam's voice.

It's also included as the last line of the FPP.
posted by Joey Michaels at 12:59 PM on August 27, 2010


A man walks into a bar.

He's an alcoholic and it's killing his family.

amidoinitrite?
posted by mullingitover at 1:00 PM on August 27, 2010 [11 favorites]


I would say that your joke can violate any social norms to almost any extreme as long as the audience agrees with the point it makes.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:02 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


In a lot of ways, the subjectivity of the theory explains why people find different things funny.
posted by l33tpolicywonk at 1:08 PM on August 27, 2010


When I have to explain a joke, I feel like I'm dissecting a clown in search of it's vital humors.

This paper is like the nazi research scientist version of clown dissection.
posted by jrishel at 1:10 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Astro Zombie: I don't know. I once read a discussion of Andrew Dice Clay--by Roger Ebert, maybe?--that pointed out how disturbing it was that the audience tended to cheer rather than laugh at the most misogynistic parts. I guess I'm saying there's a distinction between whether a joke goes over well and whether it's actually funny.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 1:11 PM on August 27, 2010


Comedy is tragedy plus time.

(Whips out pocket voice recorder.)

Idea for a farce...
posted by griphus at 1:11 PM on August 27, 2010


The two conditions are pointlessly malleable and recursive.

As to the norm violation, the norm can include the act of telling a transgressive joke -- as in "ain't that the truth" jokes or "I can't believe she's saying what we all think" jokes. So it's recursive to a degree, including as to violating the two conditions.

As to the benign element, the idea seems to be that if it's sufficiently horrible it becomes benign because it's fantastical in character and removed from reality. If it's put in terms of psychological distancing, that becomes a function of how audiences regard the act of joking, and whether framing something as a joke automatically immunizes it from its malignant nature. "Springtime for Hitler," etc.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:13 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I agree with what you're saying, AkzidenzGrotesk. It explains why a lot of people who are deathly unfunny consider themselves humorists because they take political potshots.

Perhaps I should amend it to say that people will also tolerate enormous violations of social norms so long as they don't especially get effects by the norm being violated, or especially care, or dislike the norm.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:14 PM on August 27, 2010


No, no no, it's simple.

If it bends...
posted by condour75 at 1:14 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


but what about the times when it is funny when someone gets hurt?

Well then it's only a flesh wound.
posted by carsonb at 1:16 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


The worse the pun is, the more groan-worthy it is, the better. The worst pun is the best pun.
posted by kmz at 1:17 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


The secrets of humor.

Comedy is the spark of the release of anxiety. For something to be funny, the setup must invoke anxiety and that anxiety must be quickly diminished.

For example, the British find puns funnier than many others because they have a higher cultural tension regarding choosing the correct words. Order is an important cultural norm in British society which such groups as Monty Python play off effectively.

Death has high anxiety attached to it, and many of the funniest moments are in comedy / horror genre - for those societies where death is distant. (Distance allows the anxiety to escape. Your mother's on the roof and won't come down is not funny for those whose mothers died waiting for rescue in Katrina) Unexpected cruelty has a large amount of anxiety attached to it. For either of death are cruelty you will find that the comedy doesn't translate as well to cultures where these phenomena are common. (American humor doesn't always cross the seas well.)

Other subjects are high anxiety, but no release. For example, rape. While death is always in the future allowing us to mock it, rape can be a horrible present or past reality. That's why Arsenic and Old Lace, a comedy with serial killers, but not other anxieties, equally acute, do not translate to humor.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 1:20 PM on August 27, 2010 [4 favorites]


mullingitover: A horse walks into a bar. The bartender says, "Why the long face?" The horse says, "My alcoholism is killing my family."

that's my preferred version anyway
posted by komara at 1:20 PM on August 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


"My dog has no nose."

Wenn ist das Nunstruck git und Slotermeyer?
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:23 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


AkzidenzGrotesk : Does this give us the long-awaited explanation of Groening's Paradox? ("The French are funny, sex is funny, and comedies are funny; but French sex comedies are not funny.")

There is a scene in Amélie where Audrey Tautou is staring into the camera with a goofy half smile while having sex. Not a word is said, and it is absolutely one of the funniest moments in the film.

Not saying that this disproves the Groening Paradox, just that there certainly can be funny French sex comedies. It's not impossible.
posted by quin at 1:23 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


For example, the British find puns funnier than many others because they have a higher cultural tension regarding choosing the correct words. Order is an important cultural norm in British society which such groups as Monty Python play off effectively.

I'm not quite sure . I'd like to have a butchers at your thoroughbreds in fact.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 1:25 PM on August 27, 2010


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.

I'd say this pretty much describes most of the humor on Firesign Theatre's first 4 albums.

This here life-size replica of the Taj Mahal made entirely of oleomargarine houses our guru, Dr. Tim. Let's knock on the door and see if he's in! *splut splut*
posted by hippybear at 1:26 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Test for the original theory, and for dances_with_sneetches, and for any universal theory of comedy: Andy Kaufman. And, I think, the original Office. These things thrive on discomfort and unreleased anxiety.

Special test for dances_with_sneetches: "I was raped by a doctor,” Sarah Silverman says, “which is so bittersweet for a Jewish girl."
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:26 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


There is humour in shock value, though. It's old and tired by this point, but part of the oomph of this joke was leant by the context of me, a youth group consellor, telling it to my teenage wards:

What is black, white, and red, and can't get through a revolving door?
A nun with a spear through her head.*

Some tell this as a "javellin through her neck" but I think the former is far more elegant.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:28 PM on August 27, 2010


Andy Kaufman. And, I think, the original Office. These things thrive on discomfort and unreleased anxiety.

They also rely on distancing. Kaufman's comedy is only funny if you're in on the joke -- if you aren't, it could be assaultive, and he generated a lot of outraged reactions. The original office relied on us not actually being in the room with David Brent, which gave us the distance to participate in the embarrassment, but also be distanced from it.

The Silverman jokes benefited from very careful framing -- it came well into a movie where we understood that the point of the joke was to push the limits of acceptable comedy well past their tradition breaking point, and that this was a joke that almost exclusively happened in the context of comedians one-upping other comedians, and the pleasure of it was to see how far the joke could be pushed, and how it's themes could be explored. So we were provided relative distance from the joke's punchline.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:34 PM on August 27, 2010


Oh, actually, with Silverman, I was thinking of her joke from The Aristocrats." But I'd say her other joke also benefits from framing, in that we are distanced from her persona -- we know it to be a put-on. That being said, people do not universally appreciate her jokes. For many, there is not enough distancing to make her jokes funny.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:35 PM on August 27, 2010


The worse the pun is, the more groan-worthy it is, the better. The worst pun is the best pun.


Ok let me try this.

Ok there are two sausages. On a plate. In a bar. And, er, one of them is from Germany. No, they're at a comedy club. No. I don't know where they are but they're talking about this study about meat exports. And they're people, not sausages. Apparently german sausages don't sell well next to non-German sausages. Well, sausages from German speaking countries don't sell, actually, not just Germany. And so anyway they're chatting about sausage exports. And then a guy with gun walks into the bar. Ouch. He threatens the two guys, one of whom doesn't perceive risk like other people. Oh, the guy doesn't have a gun, he has a sausage, which is funny cause they've just been talking about sausages. So one of the guys says 'go on, do your worst!'

Now that's a benign violation.
posted by doublehappy at 1:35 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


AZ: You are thinking of a different Silverman rape joke.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:39 PM on August 27, 2010


Oops. Never mind.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 1:39 PM on August 27, 2010


I don't get this. He has either partially or completely co-opted Thomas Veatch's original ideas and repacked them as his own shiny new theory. Yes, Veatch is discussed in page 4 of the article, but the claim about the difference between Veatch's theory (the reason it was 'flawed') and this new updated version, in my mind, does not hold at all. I'm skeptical to call BS on this, because that is not something I like doing to people, but I can't figure out what's different here between the two theories. It seems built on a faulty premise to me and Veatch should get more credit for the groundwork he's done here.

Regardless, I love the ideas and this is a really fun topic!

I remember because of this FPP about him (selflink, sorry) and his Theory of Humor, which *wasn't* linked to in the article...the name 'Thomas Veatch' in the article leads to a 'no results' page. Something is clearly not right.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:41 PM on August 27, 2010


Astro Zombie: Kaufman's comedy is only funny if you're in on the joke

Not sure whether your notion of distancing is a proxy for being benign, but this just illustrates my point that the original theory doesn't articulate a rigorous theory. If one achieves a condition by virtue of a relationship to the joke (being in on it) that is independent of the two conditions, we've not proceeded; it's like saying jokes including things that are regarded as jokes.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:41 PM on August 27, 2010


Yeah, I agree it would be tough to pull off Silverman's Aristocrats joke in any other context, but the one about the doctor is a natural part of her standup and quite typical of her style.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:41 PM on August 27, 2010


If one achieves a condition by virtue of a relationship to the joke (being in on it) that is independent of the two conditions, we've not proceeded; it's like saying jokes including things that are regarded as jokes.

If you're in on the joke, or distanced from it, you sense it as benign.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:43 PM on August 27, 2010


Also this theory conflicts with my uncle's popular theory of comedy:

It's funnier if you know Kevin.
posted by doublehappy at 1:43 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


To be clear, my beef is not at all with the FPP or the OP here at MeFi, but with Peter McGraw and Denver Westward News.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:44 PM on August 27, 2010


Astro Zombie: As to the Silverman rape joke that I had in mind, it seems devilishly difficult to define when it is transgressive enough to be funny and yet distancing enough so as not to disqualify it. You point out that her humor is not universally appreciated, which is entirely true, but we also have to work in the fact that for many that is closely related to why they *do* find it funny. (Many of the hard-core fans of the aristocrats joke would lose interest if it became mainstream.)

It may be anti-intellectual, but I am sworn to slay any meta-theory of humor, in defense of humor, just like I am sworn to kill Dr. Ruth in defense of sexuality.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:49 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Me: If one achieves a condition by virtue of a relationship to the joke (being in on it) that is independent of the two conditions, we've not proceeded; it's like saying jokes including things that are regarded as jokes.

Astro Zombie: If you're in on the joke, or distanced from it, you sense it as benign.

So to if you recognize it as a joke, or think it's funny. Now where are we?
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 1:51 PM on August 27, 2010


I'm also disappointed that this doesn't actually tell us why a benign violation is funny and why we find things funny. It just says that all funny things match this theory to some extent, which might be true, but it's not like funny people don't instinctively know that already. This is just packaging it for humourless* marketing types and suits to make more money.

I liked the anxiety theory espoused above but I feel like it doesn't account for my mum telling me she stepped on a rake being hilarious. Unless a phrase like 'i was outside' takes on an anxious quality in my mind because mums telling me a story so there MUST be something notable in it. Whats gonna happen?**

*yeah that's right. Humourless with a u.


**sorry typing quality. Phone
posted by doublehappy at 1:53 PM on August 27, 2010


We're consistent with the theory -- if you find it benign, you find it funny. If you don't find it benign, you don't find it funny. I am not sure what is being argued here in opposition to this statement, except that some comedians are especially transgressive, and people find them funny anyway. The point I am making is that the people who find them funny typically have a sort of distance from the subject, in knowing the comedy is meant ironically, or being in on the joke, or not being especially effected by the transgression, to find it funny. If those conditions are not met, there is a good chance they will find the joke offensive, rather than funny.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:56 PM on August 27, 2010


Glad to see Sarah Silverman getting her due in this thread. She, more than anybody that I know, treads on ice so thin it's just water. She knows just how to deliver the nasty, yet remain sympathetic to us. We know she's joking.

I loved her take on The Aristocrats, but I was thinking of her stand up. Her TV show is of course, funnier than hell. Good God, when she put on black face makeup...
posted by Xoebe at 1:56 PM on August 27, 2010


If this is true, then why is Gallagher so uproariously funny? For those of you who haven't seen it, he smashes watermellons and such. IT'S SO FUNNY! But I always feel sad for those poor watermellons.
posted by glaucon at 1:57 PM on August 27, 2010


I see a lot of value to the theory, but McGraw loses me here:

Even tickling can be explained by the BVT, since it involves somebody violating someone else's physical space in a benign way. People can't tickle themselves, McGraw points out, because it isn't a violation. Nor will most people laugh if a creepy stranger tries to tickle them, since nothing about that is benign.

I think laughter from tickling, and the inability to self tickle, is more a physiological phenomena than psychological.

Regarding mannequito's comment, I have to admit the MetaTalk thread got me thinking about this. When one reads a personal anecdote, the distance is reduced, the joke is less benign, and for many is instantly less (or not) funny.
posted by cosmac at 1:58 PM on August 27, 2010


One time I was hanging out with a computer science friend of mine. He was kind of going through a promiscuous playing-the-field phase. He started talking about one date, and we realized that several of his prospects had the same given name. "Oh no," he says, "I have a namespace collision!"

Immediately, I blurt out - "using namespace STD!"
posted by thesmophoron at 2:02 PM on August 27, 2010 [7 favorites]


I bet this McGraw fellow is a real hoot at parties.
posted by spilon at 2:03 PM on August 27, 2010


I'm also disappointed that this doesn't actually tell us why a benign violation is funny and why we find things funny.

Actually, McGraw takes a shot at this. Perhaps a bit of a stretch, but interesting:

McGraw believes the BVT may even help explain why, biologically, humans evolved with the ability to laugh. It is clearly a beneficial trait to be able to correctly perceive when a violation is benign and communicate that to others via laughter, he points out. Early humans who were afraid of every apparent violation, real or not, weren't going to last long — nor were those who took one look at a woolly mammoth charging their way and did nothing but bust a gut.
posted by cosmac at 2:03 PM on August 27, 2010


Astro Zombie: my only point is that whether something is "benign," or "distant," seems in interesting cases to turn on whether that thing is regarded as funny or as among the class of things called jokes.

To the extent that's true, it does not seem very helpful; if the theory said "people regard something as funny sometimes because they regard it as a joke," that would be more economical, but slightly less likely to produce tenure.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 2:06 PM on August 27, 2010


In Ghostbusters, there's a sign in the background of one scene that says, "Danger! 10,000 Ohms!"

Now for an electrical engineer, that's hilarious. But I don't see how it fits this model of humor. What's the "violation"?
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:06 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Completely missed that, thanks. I don't think I would survived very long in the old days..
posted by doublehappy at 2:07 PM on August 27, 2010


I'm still having trouble with the "benign" part. I laughed myself sick watching Life is Beautiful, and there was nothing benign, for example, about the hysterically funny translation of the concentration camp guard's orientation speech. And -- Jon Stewart cracks me up most when he mocks the things that make me angriest. I can think of more examples, but in general Prof. McGraw's formula doesn't work well for me.
posted by bearwife at 2:07 PM on August 27, 2010


Huh, in college I went to see a fellow student present a paper espousing a very similar theory, with the add on that Russian humor was a particularly rich example.
posted by ifjuly at 2:09 PM on August 27, 2010


I think the rape joke comparison is apt. There was a dustup in the local comedy scene about rape jokes, similar to the ones that happen here (although a lot less civil) that I was at the center of. And, almost to the person, the ones who were defending rape jokes were men who either had never been raped or chose not to make that information public, and the jokes they defended treated rape as an abstraction, rather than an experience people actually have. The joke wasn't about actual rape, but "rape" as a concept, refracted through ironic distance. for the people who were distanced from the topic, it was funny. For those who had experienced it, or were close to people who had, it was galling.

I will say my experience of comedy is consistent with this theory, and it is a useful principal for people who tell jokes to keep in mind, even if the theory may not hold true 100 percent of the time. It helps to ask yourself "Is this something I find funny because I am significantly removed from the transgression? Will others not share the distance to find the subject sufficiently benign to find it funny? Is there a way I can create a safe environment for this transgression?"

Because, if you don't ask those questions, as a comedian, you stand a good chance of losing your audience when you tell a joke they are not removed enough from to enjoy.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:09 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Why did the chicken cross the road?

He's an alcoholic and it's killing his family

My God, its the legendary universal punchline.
posted by Joey Michaels at 2:09 PM on August 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


people regard something as funny sometimes because they regard it as a joke

That's not the same thing. I know racist jokes are jokes; I don't find them funny.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:10 PM on August 27, 2010


The problem with these theories is that you can wriggle around and try to make anything fit. So Gallagher would be violating the norm about generally not making a mess. Or something.

But yeah, anyway, this is B.S. How do random internet memes, where everyone just repeats the same thing and laughs, fit into this framework?
posted by delmoi at 2:13 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Remember in "Raiders of the Lost Arc" when Indy is chasing after a couple of guys who kidnapped Marion. at one point he's in a crowd of natives. Suddenly the music shifts, the crowd pulls back, and there's a guy holding a great big sword who looks like he's about to attack Indy.

Indy looks annoyed, draws his pistol, and shoots the swordsman. It's one of the funniest scenes in the movie -- but it ain't "benign". A character died.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 2:13 PM on August 27, 2010


But a real person didn't die. And we know that. It's transgressive but benign.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:14 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


In Ghostbusters, there's a sign in the background of one scene that says, "Danger! 10,000 Ohms!" Now for an electrical engineer, that's hilarious. But I don't see how it fits this model of humor. What's the "violation"?

Is it part of the norm of social engineers to talk about the dangers of electrical resistance?
posted by thesmophoron at 2:14 PM on August 27, 2010


"My dog has no nose."
"How does he smell?"
"I just gave him a bath, so he smells great."


It's funny, because it's true: CPB's dog does smell awesome.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:14 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Am I the only one that is puzzled by the ridiculous similarity between the two theories, the presentation of them (puns, tickling, same quotes used), and the inability of Denver Westwood News to properly link to Thomas Veatch? (If so, I'll say no more. Maybe I'm overreacting.)
posted by iamkimiam at 2:15 PM on August 27, 2010


Yes, that's another great example, Chocolate Pickle. In fact, a LOT of jokes about death and murder are funny (I give you e.g. Charles Addams), and what topic could be less benign?
posted by bearwife at 2:15 PM on August 27, 2010


Jokes without punchlines.
posted by blue_beetle at 2:16 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Also, AZ, there are plenty of jokes that are funny involving real people who died. I remember an old OJ joke about representing his story as slash, slash, backslash, and escape. The heart of that joke is not at all benign or unreal.
posted by bearwife at 2:17 PM on August 27, 2010


Astro Zombie, I give. ("That's what she said.") I am trying to explain why the theory is analytically unsatisfying; you are maintaining that it coincides your sense of humor and more generally with your sense of what works in the comedy scene.

To recap, I don't think you can come up with an explanation of what "distance" or "benign" is that doesn't depend in frontier cases on the audience's prior understanding of what a joke is or what's funny (and yes, I know they may be different sets). This idea that funny is as funny does is fatal to any theory that tries to develop an independent test. But I get your point that it works for you.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 2:20 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I guarantee you those jokes were not especially funny to the families of Nicole Brown or Ronald Goldman. I can't say that with absolute authority -- some people in the families may have used humor as a coping mechanism, in which, by making something into a joke, we force it into the distance, we force it to be benign. But, in general, the closer somebody is to the actual transgression, if it's rooted in pain, the less funny they are going to find a joke about that transgression.

Again, I think there are exceptions to this. But, generally, it's a sound theory.
posted by Astro Zombie at 2:21 PM on August 27, 2010


How do random internet memes, where everyone just repeats the same thing and laughs, fit into this framework?

I'll give it a go:

It's a violation of how we normally digest, synthesize, and impart information (and memes), because it is built on the awareness of the meme itself and self-conciousness of the person who repeats it. This is not how people communicate, traditionally, in normal day-to-day interpersonal relationships.

And meme-jokes are typically benign by design; if you're aware of the meme enough to get the joke, you probably won't be offended by it.


Yeah, that's a reach.
posted by defenestration at 2:21 PM on August 27, 2010


Sarah Jessica Parker walks into a bar.
/rimshot
posted by nj_subgenius at 2:24 PM on August 27, 2010


We always called this the "comedy triple."

i.e. "Think I'm gonna have a cup of coffee, read the newspaper and light myself on fire."
posted by slogger at 2:33 PM on August 27, 2010


Final thought: another reason this theory is stupid isn't so much because it fails to explain some things that some of us find funny, it's rather because it nominally deems so many things to be funny that aren't.

First, there must be a violation of the norm.

I cut in the post office line, moving from place 2 to place 1. To hell with etiquette.

Second, the violation must be perceived to be benign.

Person formerly in first place shrugs resignedly, claps me on the back. No one else is worse off.

Last, both these perceptions must occur simultaneously.

Hell, I'll even throw in a sad trombone to punctuate the whole riotous episode.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 2:37 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


inability of Denver Westwood News to properly link to Thomas Veatch

Like many newspaper web articles, all the hotlinks are simple self searches. I didn't see any useful links in the article. Thus, I have a hard time seeing anything nefarious.

I've not spent a lot of time on your interesting Veatch link, but I do see some differences. I really like the nuance of distance being important. HuRL is actually testing this.

The Hot Tub Time Machine experiment is an expansion of this research. Participants have been watching the clip while sitting at different places in the room, and McGraw is hoping to prove that participants who watch the dog-butt and pee-spray jokes 25 feet from the screen consider them more benign and funnier than people watching from five feet away.
posted by cosmac at 2:42 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


If I remember correctly Kant opined that the source of humor was the incongruity between the punchline and the expected outcome.

So, hey way to be 200 years behind, guy. Kudos, really.
posted by oddman at 3:04 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I bet this McGraw fellow is a real hoot at parties.

Actually, he is. I went to grad school with him, and he is pretty damn funny.
posted by naturesgreatestmiracle at 3:21 PM on August 27, 2010


This FPP pretty much answers an AskMe I was going to post. Thanks a lot!
posted by dunkadunc at 3:23 PM on August 27, 2010


From Bob Monkhouse, a very popular British comedian back in the day:

"They all laughed at me when I said I was going to be a stand-up comic. Well nobody's laughing now."
posted by binturong at 3:24 PM on August 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


"Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them under control. I trust you are not in too much distress."

Too soon?
posted by Splunge at 3:46 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


Actually, this BVT thing still seems to fit into older notions of humor=anxiety and superiority; the "violation of norms" really is better understood as "violations of some implicit, even imagined third-party's expectations," which in turn means, "You, the joke-listener, are smarter/more relaxed/cooler/superior to the 'butt' of the joke."

For that matter, "benign" should be qualified as "harmless to the joke-listener"; it needn't be at all benign to any of the characters within the framework of the joke.

Fundamentally, humor is about anxiety, and using the dagger with the rubber blade, in order to chastise the wayward and reunify the tribe; changing some party's social status, through reversing expectations, while doing it in such a way-- and with sufficient entertainment of onlookers- that the first party would be ostracized from the tribe if he resorted to violence.

Even self-deprecating humor is largely about implicitly raising one's social status, then just at the point where this might cause anxiety in others, sharply lowering one's status.
posted by darth_tedious at 4:49 PM on August 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


"Benign Violation," huh? All I know is, that's not what your mom called it last night.
posted by webmutant at 5:28 PM on August 27, 2010


"Benign Violation," huh? All I know is, that's not what your mom called it last night.

Your mom, on the other hand, was strikingly inaudible.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 5:56 PM on August 27, 2010


An alcoholic that is killing his family walks into a bar.

The Aristocrats!
posted by Balisong at 6:09 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


In Ghostbusters, there's a sign in the background of one scene that says, "Danger! 10,000 Ohms!"

Now for an electrical engineer, that's hilarious. But I don't see how it fits this model of humor. What's the "violation"?


The violation in this case is simply in expectations. You would never expect to really see that on a sign. If you did, it wouldn't be funny. "Violation" doesn't necessarily mean a moral violation, so much as just "That did not go how I thought it was going to go."

So yeah, pretty broad as a theory. It's not a bad theory, but it doesn't strike me as any particular "EUREKA!" moment either.
posted by sonika at 6:33 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


It's not just broad. It approaches the universal. You can rationalize some sort of "violation" out of any situation that is unexpected.

The problem is that as a predictive model it fails, if you interpret it that broadly. It covers all kinds of things that aren't funny.

For instance, one of the anti-theft strips on your groceries didn't get demagnetized properly. When you walk out the alarm goes off -- but since you're not stealing anything, as your receipt proves. So it's a violation of the norm, and it's benign. But it isn't funny.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:38 PM on August 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


The joke wasn't about actual rape, but "rape" as a concept, refracted through ironic distance. for the people who were distanced from the topic, it was funny. For those who had experienced it, or were close to people who had, it was galling.

One thing I heard recently was that a truly horrible situation can only be portrayed as a comedy. The idea is that by telling something like the Holocaust as a tragedy, you elevate the victims into people who nobly endured their suffering with dignity, etc. The problem is that by doing this you erase the true horror of the situation, which is that the victims of the holocaust didn't even have this minimal humanity left. So the best reason to not tell a rape joke is precisely that in the gap between levity and the seriousness of the issue, we are exposed to the overwhelming traumatic truth in its full force, which brings back the memories that the victim may prefer to forget. The sad story is easier to bear.

It's similar to how people always tell these sentimental stories about someone after they die: "He was such a nice guy, a good father and a hard worker." Wouldn't it make it easier to cope with the loss by reminding yourself of how terrible he was? No, the reason to tell these idealized, fantasy stories is almost to tell yourself that they never really existed, not for real. When you are exposed to something that makes them real -- like a negative remark or something extremely mundane like their toothbrush -- you face the true trauma. From this perspective, it's possible that gallows humor from people like doctors is actually a way to stop yourself from going numb. If what makes something funny is the incongruity of it, then horrific aspect cannot be made less real by joking about it -- at least, not that kind of a joke -- since that is precisely what's being highlighted. Although it is possible to laugh at someone's claim to victimhood, as if to say that their suffering from it is what's incongruous and I agree that this would be trivializing their experience.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:30 PM on August 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


When I first read this, I was dismissive of the whole theory, and I thought about times I've been told a joke that was offensive, and yet I laughed, even though I felt it crossed a line. So, how does that count as benign violation? Well, is it really offensive if I laughed, or was I tricking myself into thinking that I wanted to be offended when really I wasn't, because deep down I'm an amoral asshole who doesn't really care about anything at all? Eh, who's to say?
posted by jefbla at 8:07 PM on August 27, 2010


Damn near killed 'em.
posted by haveanicesummer at 8:20 PM on August 27, 2010


For instance, one of the anti-theft strips on your groceries didn't get demagnetized properly. When you walk out the alarm goes off -- but since you're not stealing anything, as your receipt proves. So it's a violation of the norm, and it's benign. But it isn't funny.
If it happened to me, no. If it happened to you, it's hilarious.
posted by XerxesQados at 9:49 PM on August 27, 2010


Theories about humor are such a buzzkill. I am a comedy geek who takes humor waaay too seriously, but I recoil in horror at the delusional thinking that leads to genuine attempts to pin humor down. It. Cannot. Be done.

That this man thinks he's going to rope in successful comics to prove his theories is laughable. In a bad, nasty, superior laugh kind of way.

Humor is singular. It cannot be broken down. Well, it can, but you'll make it cry.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 11:20 PM on August 27, 2010


You'd've thought this thread would be funnier...
posted by Davenhill at 12:02 AM on August 28, 2010


For instance, one of the anti-theft strips on your groceries didn't get demagnetized properly. When you walk out the alarm goes off -- but since you're not stealing anything, as your receipt proves. So it's a violation of the norm, and it's benign. But it isn't funny.

A dog peeing on a carpet.
Two straight girls drunkenly kissing in a bar.
Driving too slowly on the highway, so people get stuck behind you.
Teenagers drinking beer.
Throwing out something expensive because you don't like it.
Politicians breaking campaign promises.
A lecherous boss.

There are probably tons and tons of examples of non-jokes that fit the framework.
posted by delmoi at 1:16 AM on August 28, 2010


Theories about humor are such a buzzkill. I am a comedy geek who takes humor waaay too seriously, but I recoil in horror at the delusional thinking that leads to genuine attempts to pin humor down. It. Cannot. Be done.

Your Shatner imitation is spot on. Hilarious.
posted by Splunge at 5:05 AM on August 28, 2010


Splunge, is that where that thing comes from? I have learned a new thing. Thank you.
posted by Gamien Boffenburg at 5:28 AM on August 28, 2010


A dog peeing on a carpet. If it's not your carpet? If it's some disliked person's super-treasured carpet? Because honestly, everyone knows dogs pee on carpets, and no, normally it isn't benign. You now have a carpet that smells like dog pee.

Two straight girls drunkenly kissing in a bar. If one of the girls had previously made a big deal about not wanting to kiss girls? The bigger of a deal she had made of it, the more your expectations would be benignly violated.

Driving too slowly on the highway, so people get stuck behind you. If you don't like (and therefore actively don't identify with) the people stuck behind this person?

Teenagers drinking beer. This in itself isn't funny, because it's not a violation of any of our expectations. Everyone knows teenagers drink beer, comedy only enters it when there's some helpless authority figure fuming impotently at all the underage drinking.
Now, a bunch of eight-year-olds having a cocktail party in evening attire? That could be pretty funny.

Throwing out something expensive because you don't like it. If it's previously set up that the thing was EXPENSIVE!! then yes, this could be funny.

Politicians breaking campaign promises. Variously funny or not. If some politician promises funding for a children's hospital and then flakes, that's not funny at all because it isn't benign: If a politician campaigns on a staunchly anti-gay platform, only for it to be discovered that he/she has been going out and having a rip-roaring good old time at the gay clubs (see: Joerg Haider) then it's fucking hilarious. Remember that this only works if you dislike said politician.

A lecherous boss. Only if the bosses' lecherousness is completely harmless, and sure to lead to nothing. This doesn't really happen in real life, but was played (to great effect) with Douglas Reynholm in The IT Crowd, where we knew that nothing awful was really going to happen and he was sure to only make a fool of himself.
posted by dunkadunc at 8:00 AM on August 28, 2010


It's not fun and games until someone loses an eye.
posted by PsychoKick at 10:33 AM on August 28, 2010


For instance, one of the anti-theft strips on your groceries didn't get demagnetized properly. When you walk out the alarm goes off -- but since you're not stealing anything, as your receipt proves. So it's a violation of the norm, and it's benign. But it isn't funny.

You walk out of a store, and as you do so, you, innocent person, are accused of being a thief. No one but you has any evidence to the contrary and they are all forming their judgments about you then, not after you produce your receipt. The scanners may be faulty, but that won't stop some overzealous security guard from hassling you unnecessarily. It's not benign, and so it isn't funny.

Anyway I came here to pontificate on memes, so I'll give it a shot. Most memes love to focus on concepts, images, and sounds that just dig into your brain and never let go. That's what makes them memes. The creepy stare of Weegee, the unquestioning enthusiasm of fgsfds, the urgency of Peppy's "Do a Barrel Roll!", the sheer mindlessness of derp, the insanity of Z҉A҉L҉G҉O, or the sublime incomprehensibility of "Has anyone really been far as decided to use even go want to do look more like?" All of these things present an incongruity, a question that cannot be answered, or a feeling that exists purely outside of any context. The meme is just a refined weapon to poke that seeking part of you that wants an answer; instead, a well crafted meme will always hint at meaning without ever allowing one. When the meme presents an incongruity that cannot be resolved, it is funny. When it is something else, it is merely entertaining, and the humorous part of repeating it is the knowledge of the effect that it has on others. The Game is not funny in and of itself, but introducing others to its mind bending ways when you yourself were new was a hilarious adventure. Confusion and anxiety are definitely the two most important aspects of humor, and we will argue until the end of time exactly what we mean by that. Memes don't make one anxious, but they do confuse the hell out of you. That is why they are funny.
posted by Bobicus at 11:46 AM on August 28, 2010


"For instance, one of the anti-theft strips on your groceries didn't get demagnetized properly. When you walk out the alarm goes off -- but since you're not stealing anything, as your receipt proves. So it's a violation of the norm, and it's benign. But it isn't funny."

I laugh at that shit all the time—I say it's their way of reminding me to shoplift. Even better is when it goes off when I'm going into the store, like they've got to be careful of people sneaking in food.
posted by klangklangston at 9:40 AM on August 29, 2010


Now, a bunch of eight-year-olds having a cocktail party in evening attire? That could be pretty funny.

Been done.
posted by toodleydoodley at 12:32 PM on August 29, 2010


OK, I have a much, much simpler theory of comedy. And I'm not joking.

Comedy is the essence of perceiving a conflict, only to realize that the conflict is meaningless. The resulting "built-up stress" from the conflict awareness is released as laughter.

Sarah Silverman's joke: we think, "What? Why is rape sweet... oh!"

"A man walks into a bar - Ouch!": The conflict is made meaningless when the listener realizes the play on words.

Moe slaps Curly: We believe the violence on a trivial level, and immediately resolve it into "that's not real!". Only the plausibility of the pratfalls & stunts makes the jokes work.

In fact, Rowan Atkinson did a brilliant example of this in a documentary/sketch. He first showed how to fake getting hit: twist your head suddenly away from the oncoming hand. Then he did it, with an "opponent." Funny. Then he showed how to screw it up: by turning his head toward the oncoming hand. Funnier, but only because we were waiting for a situation to happen, and something insanely different occurred instead (providing the tension, and simultaneously the release). If he had done the "wrong" pratfall first, it wouldn't have made any sense, and so no conflict would arise.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:39 PM on August 29, 2010


"For instance, one of the anti-theft strips on your groceries didn't get demagnetized properly. When you walk out the alarm goes off -- but since you're not stealing anything, as your receipt proves. So it's a violation of the norm, and it's benign. But it isn't funny."

One time I slipped one of those radio tags from the books at Barns & Noble into a friends wallet. That was funny for weeks.
posted by Tenuki at 7:29 PM on September 1, 2010 [3 favorites]


Tenuki: My friends & I were returning from a trip to Europe. One of us, "Bear" (heh), got randomly pulled (heh) for luggage search at the US entry point.

We were all making jokes about Bear's suspiciousness, but Kevin wasn't joining in. Instead, he was biting his knuckles, suppressing a gut-busting laugh.

Unbeknownst to us, Kevin & Bear had been playing a game, hiding a piece of women's lingerie in each other's suitcases... The goal was to do it unseen, so it just "appeared".

Before leaving England, Kevin upped the stakes... to the lingerie, and a few copies of gay porn. Bear, of course, wasn't gay (or it wouldn't as be funny). Porn, of course, is illegal to transport across the border.

Bear swore he'd get even. He never did. Yet.
posted by IAmBroom at 4:57 PM on September 3, 2010


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