What Makes Things Funny: Peter McGraw (Full Transcript)

Here is the full text of humor researcher Peter McGraw’s talk titled “What Makes Things Funny” at TEDxBoulder conference.

Peter McGraw – TEDx Talk TRANSCRIPT

In a moment, I’m going to ask you to stand up, turn to someone you don’t know, and begin tickling that person.

Although some of you may find this request slightly terrifying, 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 — 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.

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.”

Nonetheless, for this purpose, I created the Humor Research Lab, or HURL. 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.

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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.

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.

You can try; it doesn’t work.

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… There’s nothing OK about that situation.

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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. Unless it happens to someone else.

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.

Let’s try another one just for fun; I saw this one on a T-shirt in Las Vegas recently.

[My pen is huge.]

Benign violation. How do you make it not funny? Well, you could just remove the violation, move the “is” down.

How do you make it a malign violation? You really want me to do this?

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