The Benign Violation
Ever wonder what makes something funny?
Writers and thinkers and comedians have pondered this question for centuries. Aristotle and Plato believed people laughed at the misfortune of others. Sigmund Freud thought humor was a way to release psychological tension and reveal suppressed desires and fears. My friend and humorist Fay Jacobs will tell you it’s in the surprise.
I had the pleasure of participating on a panel to discuss this very topic at the 12th annual Saints and Sinners Literary Festival recently in New Orleans. I squeezed it in between sippin’ Sazeracs, feeding dollar bills to go-go boys, and eating Po’ Boy sandwiches.
I’ve always held some basic assumptions about humor: first, that you can make fun of almost anything so long as you also make fun of yourself, and second, that funny is subjective because we all have different tastes. However, in preparation for imparting wisdom to curious writers and readers in New Orleans, I researched the research on humor. What I found was quite surprising.
Seems there are a lot of people studying humor. There’s an international academic society for humor studies and—get this—a bona fide humor research lab at the University of Colorado. It’s dedicated to the scientific study of humor, its antecedents, and its consequences. The lab’s theoretical and methodological base is in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and judgment and decision making, with an emphasis in social and cognitive psychology. Huh?
Simply put, they’re a bunch of geeks out in Boulder who are trying to figure out what makes us laugh. Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing and psychology who wears sweater vests, leads HuRL, as the lab is known. McGraw and a team of research assistants conduct experiments like forcing subjects to watch funny movies and rate scenes and to repeatedly view funny YouTube videos to determine exactly when they quit being funny. McGraw believes that if it’s possible to crack the human genome code then why not the human humor code. His work is predicated upon his theory of “benign violation” which states that humor arises when something seems wrong or threatening but is simultaneously okay or safe.
“My sister was with two men in one night. She could hardly walk after that. Can you imagine? Two dinners!”—Sarah Silverman, Comedian Silverman’s joke leads with a potentially naughty “violation” and follows with a “benign” punchline, resulting in a successful joke. Tell a joke that’s too benign and it’s boring. A joke that’s too much of a violation is viewed as offensive. To be funny a joke must hit the sweet spot between the two extremes.
To test his theory, McGraw and a writer buddy named Joel Warner went on a global search for funny. They spent time with stand up and improv comedians in LA and with New Yorker cartoonists in New York. In Japan, they visited comedy clubs and comedy schools, while in Denmark they met with a cartoonist whose depiction of the Prophet Mohammed has inflamed hundreds of thousands of Muslims. They tagged along with clowns in Brazil and ventured through the Qualandia checkpoint into the West Bank and then to Palestine to meet with actors of a weekly sketch comedy program. Then they chronicled their adventures and findings in a book called The Humor Code. It’s an interesting read.
McGraw and Warner say they came out of their global adventure with a better understanding of comedy around the world, but they were hard pressed to say they had cracked the DNA of humor. It still baffled them. And while not everything fit their theory, they remained convinced it was better than the alternatives.
What they did learn was how hard it is to hit the sweet spot between benign and violation. Context matters, as does culture, but penis jokes transcend. Humor helps people cope with catastrophic events and the wear and tear of everyday life. They saw firsthand that to be funny you have to be willing to explore new ideas and venture out of your comfort zone.
Speaking of which, I’m itching to write about my own benign violation. I was thirteen and sitting in the front seat of a blue Opel GT with an older neighborhood friend when it happened. King Harvest’s “Dancing in the Moonlight” was playing on the FM radio. My friend offered me a can of Schlitz beer and the opportunity to drive the little sports car in exchange for “rubbing the peach.” I had no idea what she was talking about, and I liked peaches, so of course I said yes. Imagine my surprise when she guided my hand between her hot chubby thighs.
It was more “Afternoon Delight” than “Dancing in the Moonlight” and in retrospect I’d love to say it was the moment that opened my eyes to the comedy in life, but that honor goes to the Carol Burnett Show. All my violation gave me was a sweet spot for the big girls and a taste for cheap American-style lager beer….