As a writer of satire, I’ve reflected before about the very peculiar ways in which people sometimes interpret what they read, often projecting their own meaning not only onto the text, but onto the author of the text. I’m not going to rehash my thoughts on that, but instead discuss a bit about humour in general. What is it? How does it work? What do I, personally, find funny?
The Benign Violation
When researching the topic of humour and comedy a while ago I stumbled upon a psychological concept that, in my opinion, comes closer to explaining how comedy works than any theory I’ve heard before. Developed by A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, the benign violation theory predicts that people will find funny those things that fall into the middle ground of benign (harmless) and violation (harmful, breaking a rule or social norm). When those two factors are noticed simultaneously, we laugh. When either one is absent, we don’t.
In other words, there must be some violation of social norms, rules, or some other kind of “harm” done, but it must also be seen by the viewers as more-or-less harmless. You might laugh when you see someone else trip and fall, but not once you notice they’re severely hurt. Tickling, explains McGraw, is a violation of personal space. However, when you’re tickled by someone you know and trust, you react by laughing because it’s a benign violation. When you try to tickle yourself you don’t react at all because there’s no violation whatsoever. On the other hand, if you attempt to tickle a random stranger on the street, this action will not likely be greeted with laughter as it will be viewed solely as a violation and not benign at all.
In my opinion, this theory accurately explains the reaction towards all sorts of humour from satire and parody to slapstick and cringe humour.
If you want to know more, you can hear Peter McGraw explain his theory himself in this Ted Talk:
I see this theory in action nearly every day on the Daily Bonnet. Whether someone “gets” the jokes depends on them seeing the violation that is taking place (in the case of satire it may be an exaggeration of a familiar situation). On other hand, when someone “take offence” it is because they don’t see the violation as benign. They perceive that a harm of some sort has actually occurred.
Of course, the middle ground of benign violation will differ with each person. For some, any degree of profanity, for example, is seem as a harm, and not benign. To others, profanity is harmless and funny. In fact, the reason swearing works to get a laugh is precisely because it breaks a social norm, but at the same time is regarded by most people as more-or-less harmless. They’re only words, after all.
That’s Not Funny!
When someone warns “that’s not funny,” what they are saying is, in their estimation, the joke crossed from the benign violation zone to the violation zone. When someone says “I don’t get it” (or ‘gets’ it but finds the joke cheesy), they are saying it is too benign to be funny. The very nature of all humour, though, is that there always is the potential to offend. If there wasn’t any potential to offend, according to McGraw’s theory, there would also be no potential for humour. Even so-called “clean” humour works on some level of violation. It is only perceived as “clean” based on a certain set of movable and niche social norms that vary by time and place. But without any violation whatsoever (a funny accent, a pun, an awkward situation, a mild scatological reference), it won’t be funny.
This 90 minute youtube documentary by Mile Celestino explores the problem of being a comedian in a society where some people so easily take offence. It documents “that’s not funny” reactions from Vaudeville to the edgy comedy of Lenny Bruce and George Carlin to the satire of today. It’s well worth watching if you want to learn more about the historical context of this problem.
So, what do I find funny?
Well, I guess that’s a bit hard to define. There certainly are Daily Bonnet articles that I think are great that get a mediocre reaction and others that I think are ho-hum and people seem to love. I tend to enjoy humour that revolves around themes of religion, politics, psychology and so on. In general, though, my humour tends toward dry wit, cleverness, sarcasm, and deadpan more so than, say, slapstick or gross out humour…though, I have my moments.
I grew up watching The Simpsons, Seinfeld, Black Adder, and David Letterman. In 1998, my brother and I were alone in a virtually empty theatre on opening night to watch the new Coen Brothers film The Big Lebowski. The film flopped at the box office and, for a few years, I’d ask people about this movie and no one had seen it. It later became a cult hit with a large fanbase. It’s a film that I still find pretty hilarious, especially after a few White Russians.
Soon, thereafter, I started watching Woody Allen movies, and I love his quick wit, amusing paranoia, and self-deprication. (I’ve seen every single one of his movies). I also really love Billy Wilder’s wordy movies, such as the vastly under-appreciated One, Two, Three. Today, my wife and I like to watch Modern Family, The Goldbergs, Parks and Rec…there are lots of others….
When I say I prefer clever sarcasm to slapstick, there are some exceptions. I used to watch the Three Stooges, but don’t find it all that funny anymore. Buster Keaton, however, is brilliant. His gags were clever, unexpected. In other words, yes, it was slapstick, but it was smart. The same can be said of Jacques Tati.
The only famous stand-up comedians I’ve seen live are Jerry Seinfeld, Norm MacDonald, and Steven Wright – all pretty brilliant in very different ways. I think it also goes without saying that I admire the writings of Jonathan Swift. Armin Wiebe and Miriam Toews strongly influenced my Mennonite-themed writing.
I guess this is not so much a description as a list, but I guess it’ll give you at least some sense of what I find funny.
(photo credit: Alan Light/CC)