What Makes Things Humorous?

May 30, 2014

May 30, 2014           Peter McGraw

          Why is it that people laugh at jokes or someone’s actions even though they may seem inappropriate or threatening? The answer, according to Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing and psychology at CU-Boulder and an expert in the interdisciplinary fields of judgment, emotion and choice, is something called “benign violations.”

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What makes things humorous?

May 30, 2014           Peter McGraw

          Why is it that people laugh at jokes or someone’s actions even though they may seem inappropriate or threatening? The answer, according to Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing and psychology at CU-Boulder and an expert in the interdisciplinary fields of judgment, emotion and choice, is something called “benign violations.”

CUT 1 “Something needs to threaten your sense of how things should be while also seeming safe, acceptable, or okay. As any slapstick comedian knows -- physical threats, like an assault with a banana cream pie, similarly elicits laughter in adults.” (:14)

          McGraw just co-authored and published a book on humor with journalist Joel Warner called, “The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.” He says as people evolved and developed a sense of self, culture, language and logic, they could experience threat and sometimes humorous reactions to a number of situations.

CUT 2 “Humor transcends physical gags to include violations related to social norms -- think fart jokes. Logic – think absurdities.  Communication norms – think sarcasm. And identity – think roasts.” (:15)

          But not just any violation will make people laugh, says McGraw.  Violations, if not done in a safe and acceptable way, can make people angry, confused or disgusted.

CUT 3 “Many things make a violation benign – a playful state of mind, cues that a situation is safe or OK, a feeling that a situation is far away or a low commitment to what is threatened.” (:12)

          McGraw says the benign violations theory also explains the two ways humor attempts don’t work.

CUT 4 “Sometimes there’s no violation. You can’t tickle yourself because there is not a 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.” (:15)

          As an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the CU-Boulder Leeds School of Business, McGraw directs the Humor Research Lab and teaches courses in consumer behavior, decision-making and advertising.

-CU-

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