I was recently invited to talk about what makes things funny for the WAMCs Academic Minute. (I also did one in 2013.)
The Academic Minute features researchers from colleges and universities around the world, keeping listeners abreast of what’s new and exciting in the academy.
Hosted by Dr. Lynn Pasquerella, President of Mount Holyoke College, The Academic Minute features a different professor each day, drawing experts from top research institutions. You’ll enjoy updates on groundbreaking scientific research, an explanation of the accidental discovery of chocolate and an analysis of how social media is transforming the workplace, to name a few.
Here is the new one about what makes things humorous (of course). Listen. It will only take a minute.
Or read about it here:
What makes things humorous? The answer: benign violations.
Something needs to threaten your sense of how things should be while also seeming safe, acceptable, or okay.
Both babies and non-human primates laugh when chased, tickled, or attacked in a safe and friendly way. As any slapstick comedian knows, physical threats, like an assault with a banana cream pie, similarly elicits laughter in adults.
As humans evolved and developed culture, language, logic, and a sense of self, people could experience threat, and sometimes humorous reactions to a wider range of situations. Thus, humor transcends physical gags to include violations related to social norms (think fart jokes), logic (think absurdities), communication norms (think sarcasm), and identity (think insult roasts).
Of course, violations do not usually make people laugh. They make people angry, disgusted or confused. For a violation to be funny, it also needs to seem safe, acceptable, or okay.
Many things make a violation benign:
- a playful state of mind
- cues that a situation is okay
- a reason why the situation is acceptable
- feeling that a situation is far away
- or, a low commitment to what is threatened
The theory also explains the two ways humor attempts can fail. Sometimes there is no violation. You can’t tickle yourself because there is not threat of attack. Other times, there is nothing benign. You are not likely to laugh when tickled by a creepy stranger.
Laughter only occurs when something is both wrong and okay.