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What Makes Things Funny: Peter McGraw (Full Transcript)

Peter McGraw at TEDxBoulder

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.

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.

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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.

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.

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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?

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]

The American who can’t figure this out can probably afford to spend the extra dollar.

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.

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. 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. 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.

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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.”

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.


Download This Transcript as PDF here: What Makes Things Funny_ Peter McGraw (Full Transcript)


Resources for Further Reading:

Sophie Scott on Why We Laugh at TED Talk (Full Transcript)

The Funny Side of Fear – Conquering Anxiety Through Comedy: Daniel Hardman at TEDxDouglas (Transcript)

Ahmed Ahmed: When It Comes to Laughter, We Are All Alike at TEDxDoha (Transcript)

Brad Jenkins: How Laughing at Yourself Can Change the World (Transcript)