What makes things funny | Peter McGraw | TEDxBoulder
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What makes things funny | Peter McGraw | TEDxBoulder


Translator: Ilze Garda
Reviewer: Maricene Crus In a moment, I’m going to ask you to stand up,
turn to someone you don’t know, and begin tickling that person. (Laughter) Although some of you may find
this request slightly terrifying, (Laughter) many of you are clearly amused. If this is funny, it begs the question,
“What makes things funny?” And answering that question
is important for a few reasons. Humor is pervasive, people of all ages and cultures
experience humor on a daily basis. Humor influences your choices – from the movies and television you watch
to the people you date and mate. And humor – that’s true – (Laughter) and humor is beneficial. It makes you happy, and it helps you cope
with pain, stress, and adversity. Although answering the question
what makes things funny is important, it’s not why I’m here today. Let me explain. A few years ago, I was giving
a talk about moral violations, and I was making the case that moral violations
cause anger and disgust. And I was motivating
that case with an example: a news story about a church
that was raffling off an H2 Hummer SUV to a lucky member of the congregation. (Laughter) But instead of groans, I got laughs, and an astute member
of the audience raised her hand. She said, “Pete, you said
that moral violations cause disgust, and yet we’re laughing. Why?” I wanted to answer the question
of what makes things funny because I didn’t know the answer
to the question what makes things funny. E. B. White says, “Analyzing humor
is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested,
and the frog dies of it.” (Laughter) Nonetheless, for this purpose, I created
the Humor Research Lab, or HURL. (Laughter) And in the next ten minutes,
I’m going to present a theory of humor, evidence from HURL
that supports the theory, and discuss implications for how
you can have a more humorous life. Let’s start with the theory. Caleb Warren and I
have crafted a theory of humor that we call the Benign Violation Theory. The Benign Violation Theory
integrates existing humor theory and builds on work by Tom Veatch to say that humor occurs when and only when
three conditions are satisfied: a situation is a violation,
a situation is benign, and both of these appraisals
occur simultaneously. Violations are anything that threatens
the way you believe the world ought to be; simply put, something seems wrong. Violations take many forms,
ranging from violations of social norms, such as a TED speaker
asking people to touch each other, to violations of moral norms, such as Keith Richards’ claim
that he snorted, among many other things, his dead father’s ashes. (Laughter) There’s many ways
to make a violation benign; we’ve studied three. One way you make a violation benign is to not be strongly committed
to the violated norm. This explains why a bunch
of non-religious academics may laugh about a church
giving away a Hummer SUV. Another way that a violation can be benign
is if it’s psychologically distant, such as if it occurs to someone else,
happened a long time ago, or just doesn’t seem real. Yet another way that a violation
can seem benign is if there’s some alternative explanation
that somehow makes the violation OK, as occurs in the case
of play fighting and tickling. The Benign Violation Theory predicts that primates laugh
when play fighting or tickling because both are mock attacks or threatening situations
that also seem harmless. The theory also explains,
in addition to what is funny, what is not funny, and distinguishes between
the two meanings of the term “not funny.” Situations that are purely
benign are not funny, there is no threat there, and explains
why you can’t tickle yourself. (Laughter) You can try; it doesn’t work. (Laughter) Situations that are pure violations,
or what we call malign violations, are also not funny. So that creepy guy
who’s kind of sitting close to you, who looks pretty eager to tickle you – (Laughter) There’s nothing OK about that situation. (Laughter) The theory also accounts
for other types of physical humor. Walking down a flight of stairs –
no violation, not funny. Falling down a flight of stairs,
but being unhurt – benign violation, funny. Falling down that flight of stairs
and being badly hurt – malign violation, not funny. (Laughter) Unless it happens to someone else. (Laughter) The theory also explains
why the nerds among us laugh at puns: violations of linguistic norms [This is not a drill.
I repeat. This is not a drill!] that also seem OK. How do you make this not funny? Well, you can remove the violation. You can also make it funny
by removing the thing that makes it OK. This attempt is just confusing. (Laughter) Let’s try another one just for fun; I saw this one on a T-shirt
in Las Vegas recently. [My pen is huge.] (Laughter) Benign violation. How do you make it not funny? Well, you could … (Laughter) just remove the violation,
move the “is” down. (Laughter) How do you make it a malign violation? (Laughter) You really want me to do this? (Laughter) So by now, you can see how the benign violation
has great explanatory power. It explains nervous laughter,
for instance, such as – how at tickling you may laugh,
but it’s unwanted. Because a violation is
a necessary condition for humor, you may experience a negative emotion
in addition to your amusement. We’ve studied this at HURL
with benign moral violations, such as when someone is treated unfairly,
but probably deserves it. [Orange juice $5
Jugo de naranja $4] (Laughter) The American who can’t figure this out can probably afford
to spend the extra dollar. (Laughter) How do you make this not a violation?
You just make the prices equal. How do you make it less funny?
Well, you target the less affluent group. Our participants endorse
more negative emotions and less amusement
in this condition, don’t worry. So you probably can see how both
what is funny and what is not funny is explained by the Benign
Violation Theory. Let’s turn our attention
to how to live a more humorous life. The theory indicates that you should
pay attention to your audience, and it suggests that everybody
has a good sense of humor under the right circumstances. What one person sees as benign,
another sees as a benign violation, and another sees as a malign violation. These folks won’t laugh
at your pedophile joke. Yeah, I was worried about that one. (Laughter) You should also consider the situation. Is the situation a violation?
Then try to make it more benign. Writers, directors and comedians have long advocated for the use
of distance in doing this. Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk
into an open sewer and die. (Laughter) Our participants endorse this idea. They say that a friend
falling into an open sewer is less funny than a stranger. They also find this violation funnier
when perceived from a far distance than a close distance. (Disgusted laughter) We call this the Silverman strategy. The comedian Sarah Silverman transforms
violations into benign violations by making racial and ethnic jokes in a cute, non-serious,
non-threatening way. But not all violations would be made
funnier by making them more distant. Although Mark Twain said
that humor is tragedy plus time, no one says humor
is a mild misstep plus time. And our participants seem to indicate that bringing some mild violations
closer makes them funnier, so stumbling on a curb is funnier
when it happens to your friend than when it happens to a stranger. This is evidenced by the saying,
“You had to be there.” (Laughter) And moreover, our participants find this mild violation
funnier when perceived up close than from a far perspective. We call this the Seinfeld strategy. Seinfeld transforms normal
everyday situations into benign violations by highlighting what is wrong with them. We finally suggest you consider yourself. Are you like Sarah Silverman,
brash over the top? Soften the situation,
soften the violations. If you are like Seinfeld though,
more reserved and mild-mannered, concentrate on creating
these violations, highlighting them. So you probably by now have figured out I’m not going to ask you
to touch each other, but how did I know
that proposition would be funny? Well, first I started with a violation. It’s clearly wrong to ask you to do that;
it violates a host of norms. But I had to know
that this was going to be benign. Well, first I considered you. I figured you’re a pretty
open-minded group, you’re here to learn new things,
experience new things, OK. I also created distance: I told you this was going to be
in the future, not in the present. And lastly, there is
an alternative interpretation: I am giving a talk about humor, and so it could make sense
to ask you to do this. In short, to make things funny,
you want to create a benign violation. That’s easier said than done, however. Erma Bombeck said that there’s a thin line
between laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, and humor and hurt. Thank you. (Applause)

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