When we released the Humor Code, Joel Warner and I wrote a series of articles for Slate. In our first article, we talked about my attempt to create a universal theory of humor (i.e., the benign violation theory).
Over the past five years, at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado, Boulder, researchers have been giving subjects some funny tasks. Rate the comedy of a joke about a kitten used as a sex toy. Appraise the humor of Hot Tub Time Machine clips while sitting at various distances from the screen. Watch, on repeat, a YouTube video of a guy driving a motorcycle into a fence and indicate when it stops being amusing. This is the work of the Humor Research Lab, also known as HuRL, founded by professor Peter McGraw to answer what is actually a very serious question: What, exactly, makes things funny?
The question is more complicated than it may seem at first blush. Why do we laugh and derive amusement from so many different things, from puns to pratfalls? Why are some things funny to some people and not to others? How is that while a successful joke can cause pleasure, a gag gone awry can cause serious harm? The underpinnings of humor have proven far more vexing than those of other emotional experiences. Most scholars, for example, agree that anger occurs when something bad happens to you and you blame someone else, and guilt occurs when something bad happens to someone else and you blame yourself.
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