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World

Exploring The Science And Geography Of What Makes Something Funny

Peter McGraw speaking at TEDxBoulder in 2010.
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Peter McGraw speaking at TEDxBoulder in 2010.

Why do we laugh at what we do? Researcher Peter McGraw established the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at the University of Colorado to try to answer that question.

“Humor is this thing that we pursue in nearly all aspects of our lives. That is, we pursue it in terms of our consumption activities, how we spend a Friday night. We pursue it in terms of who we spend time with, the people that we date, that we marry, that we gravitate to as coworkers and bosses,” McGraw said. “Sometimes the pursuit of humor can be painful, it can cause harm, it can hurt people. It doesn't always bring people together, sometimes it drives them apart. And so when you start looking at all these things you say, ‘Oh, this is a topic worthy of scientific study,’.”

Research at HuRL led to what McGraw calls the “benign violation theory.” In order for something to be funny it should be simultaneously threatening and harmless.

“There has to be something else there, and that's where there's this other appraisal, this other judgment that this situation is okay, acceptable, or safe,” McGraw said. “And what happens is this negatively arousing thing – this attack, let's say, this violation of logic in absurdist humor, or a misuse of language in wordplay or pun – that negativity that normally would be the case gets transformed, gets switched, into something that's positive, and you delight in the experience, and you laugh to signal to others, oh, this situation that seems wrong is actually okay.”

One of the most universally accepted types of benign violation has a physical element, such as tickling or slapstick humor. In fact, these types of violations illicit reactions similar to laughing in other mammals such as rats and non-human primates, McGraw says. Since humor can transcend species, it makes sense that it can also cross cultures.

“When you do have comedy films that do sort of cross over, there is often a very strong element of sort of physical comedy there, because you don't need language,” McGraw said. “Charlie Chaplin films are still funny because of the physical comedy, because there's no language.”

Other types of humor, such as sarcasm or stand-up comedy, are more subjective.

“It's relatively easy to make a large group of people sad or a large group of people excited – as Hollywood often does with their movies,” McGraw said. “It's very hard to make a large group of people laugh, and that's because of the great variance in how people end up seeing the world.”

What you might consider a benign violation varies from person to person. Some may find it too harmless to be funny, but others may see as too threatening.

“Comedy is this sort of moving target where you can't go too far in either direction. On one side your audience is bored, on the other side your audience is offended,” McGraw said.

The key is to strike a balance between harmlessness and potential threat, which is what makes good comedy so difficult.

“There's lots of ways the world can go wrong and there's lots of ways that those things that are wrong could turn out to be okay,” McGraw said.

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Interview Highlights

On The Importance Of Studying Humor

I really stumbled on this question and found it to be among the most interesting ones that I had found as a researcher and, really, among the most important. That is that when you think about it, humor is this thing that we pursue in nearly all aspects of our lives. That is, we pursue it in terms of our consumption activities, how we spend a Friday night. We pursue it in terms of who we spend time with, the people that we date, that we marry, that we gravitate to as coworkers and bosses. And then also, it's not just a good thing all the time. Sometimes the pursuit of humor can be painful, it can cause harm, it can hurt people. It doesn't always bring people together, sometimes it drives them apart. And so when you start looking at all these things you say, "Oh, this is a topic worthy of scientific study" … This is a topic that everybody cares about, and it's one that I think should be part of the public conversation. So if you think about its great benefits – if you think about just the potential for coping that comes from comedy – this is something that we should be talking about. But then also the pain that bad comedy can cause. And so having people discuss not only what humor is, but what underlies it, I think is important.

On Laughter And Other Mammals

You might find this hard to believe, but there's evidence that rats laugh. That is, there's debate whether you would call it laughter or not, but rats emit this sort of ultrasonic chirping sound when being sort of roughhoused and tickled. The same is true of non-human primates. They engage in what is called "play panting,” and it's really the precursor of laughter and it occurs with rough-and-tumble play and so on. And it's the case that laughter sort of signals this notion, as we say in the lab, that the situation is wrong yet okay – or what we call a "benign violation." And so if you're looking for universals, you have to look at universals not only across humans, but also across species. And so what tends to be universal is this notion of physical threats that are actually safe or non-harmful attacks, like tickling. So that tends to be the most universal set of precursors to laughter and this sort of emotional arousal, this thing we call "amusement," that's sort of delightful and fun.

On Negativity As The Source Of Humor

So one of the sort of counterintuitive ideas that a lot of people have talked about – Plato and Aristotle talked about this, Freud talks about this, Hobbes and Kant in different ways talked about this – is that humor actually arises from potentially negative circumstances. So Mark Twain has this really lovely quote that says that "the secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven." Now, I really hate to break it to the listeners – Heaven is a wonderful place, it's a blissful place, but because there's nothing wrong, there's nothing to joke about. And so that's sort of the violation side of the equation. That is that there has to be something kind of amiss with the situation – something that seems unsettling or seems threatening in some kind of way. But of course the violations in life, they don't normally make us laugh. They make us cry. They scare us. They disgust us. There has to be something else there, and that's where there's this other appraisal, this other judgment that this situation is okay, acceptable, or safe. And what happens is this negatively arousing thing – this attack, let's say, this violation of logic in absurdist humor, or a misuse of language in wordplay or pun – that negativity that normally would be the case gets transformed, gets switched, into something that's positive, and you delight in the experience, and you laugh to signal to others, oh, this situation that seems wrong is actually okay.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Peter McGraw, welcome to World Views.

PETER MCGRAW: Thanks for having me.

GRILLOT: So, Pete, you're a researcher, but you study humor. Tell us, first and foremost, why. Why would you study humor? What draws you to things that are funny?

MCGRAW: Besides that I want to enjoy my life as a researcher, I really stumbled on this question and found it to be among the most interesting ones that I had found as a researcher and, really, among the most important. That is that when you think about it, humor is this thing that we pursue in nearly all aspects of our lives. That is, we pursue it in terms of our consumption activities, how we spend a Friday night. We pursue it in terms of who we spend time with, the people that we date, that we marry, that we gravitate to as coworkers and bosses. And then also, it's not just a good thing all the time. Sometimes the pursuit of humor can be painful, it can cause harm, it can hurt people. It doesn't always bring people together, sometimes it drives them apart. And so when you start looking at all these things you say, "Oh, this is a topic worthy of scientific study."

GRILLOT: Well it does seem to speak to the whole spectrum of human interaction and human emotion. You were quoted in an article as saying, "Humor is not only among the most important, but also among the most perplexing parts of being human." Now, you just referred to it being an important topic – which is one of the reasons why you selected it to engage in some research on the subject – but perplexing, too. So I presume that opens the door to all kinds of interesting research questions, because we're perplexed. But why? Why are we so perplexed about humor and its humanness?

MCGRAW: It's an age-old question. So, it goes back to Greek philosophers. Plato and Aristotle puzzled over what made things funny, and a lot of people way smarter than me have tried to answer the question. Hobbes wrote about it in Leviathan, Kant has written about it, Freud has written about it, and even humorists like Mark Twain have written about it. And yet still there's not an agreed upon set of conditions, antecedents, that give rise to humor. And the only reason I thought I could try to answer the question is that I can run experiments, that I can establish a causal relationship there. And you need the experiments to be able to do it. Otherwise it's just a bunch of people throwing opinions around, and so taking a scientific approach to it really ends up being this very necessary thing. And you have to take a very broad scientific approach is what we found in the Humor Research Lab.

GRILLOT: So, speaking of research, you have a Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, where you live and work. And the Humor Research Lab, the acronym, or at least what you call it, is HuRL – H-U-R-L.

MCGRAW: Affectionately.

GRILLOT: Which I presume was done on purpose.

GRILLOT: And I think I've heard you say that this was one of the best decisions that you made, was to call it HuRL [laughs]. Why is that?

MCGRAW: Well it gives us great credibility.

GRILLOT: We laugh about it, right?

MCGRAW: Of course. It's like, we can be funny. The reason I say that that was a good decision, to give the lab the acronym HuRL, is that it helps get attention. That is, one of the things that I want to do as an academic is I don't want to just publish these dry, esoteric, peer-reviewed papers that sit behind paywalls that only a few people in the world are going to read. This is a topic that everybody cares about, and it's one that I think should be part of the public conversation. So if you think about its great benefits – if you think about just the potential for coping that comes from comedy – this is something that we should be talking about. But then also the pain that bad comedy can cause. And so having people discuss not only what humor is, but what underlies it, I think is important. And so naming your lab HuRL is a good way for folks like you to say, "Hey, let's talk about this," because it just gets a little bit of attention.

GRILLOT: So, obviously, it seems to me that even though you can establish a research center, research laboratory, that focuses on humor and tries to understand humor, there's something that's still very context-based about humor – that you have to understand context in order to understand what's funny. So I'm going to get to the global context later, because you've traveled the world and written a book about humor. But what is universal, it seems to me, is that everyone, no matter where they come from, we do laugh, we do share that emotion, but we just may not laugh at the same things. Is that kind of the only thing that we can pull out of this in terms of the fact is that we all find something humorous, but what we find humorous may vary significantly?

MCGRAW: Yeah, indeed. Actually, it's not even the case that, when you say "we," we actually should refer to mammals in general. So, this may be hard to believe but –

GRILLOT: That's what I was going to say. I can't wait to hear about this [laughs].

MCGRAW: You might find this hard to believe, but there's evidence that rats laugh. That is, there's debate whether you would call it laughter or not, but rats emit this sort of ultrasonic chirping sound when being sort of roughhoused and tickled. The same is true of non-human primates. They engage in what is called "play panting,” and it's really the precursor of laughter and it occurs with rough-and-tumble play and so on. And it's the case that laughter sort of signals this notion, as we say in the lab, that the situation is wrong yet okay – or what we call a "benign violation." And so if you're looking for universals, you have to look at universals not only across humans, but also across species. And so what tends to be universal is this notion of physical threats that are actually safe or non-harmful attacks, like tickling. So that tends to be the most universal set of precursors to laughter and this sort of emotional arousal, this thing we call "amusement," that's sort of delightful and fun.

GRILLOT: Of course some of us might consider tickling very harmful so I'm just saying.

MCGRAW: Oh that actually does make sense, because not all tickling elicits laughter. So, for instance, you can't tickle yourself. There's nothing threatening about it. That situation is totally harmless. Or, if on your way home from the studio a creepy guy in a trench coat tickled you, that wouldn't be funny because there's nothing harmless about that; that is just a threatening, scary situation. And so what this highlights is how comedy is this sort of moving target where you can't go too far in either direction. On one side your audience is bored, on the other side your audience is offended. And so that, I think, really does contribute to the perplexing nature of humor – that one person is laughing, another person is outraged, and yet another person is bored.

GRILLOT: So that raises this issue of benign violation theory -- you just mentioned the benign violation. So tell us a little bit more about some of the findings that have come out of your research regarding benign violation. What do we mean by that? Benign violations are obviously things that we find to be funny. Not all benign violations are the same for everyone, right?

MCGRAW: Yeah. So one of the sort of counterintuitive ideas that a lot of people have talked about – Plato and Aristotle talked about this, Freud talks about this, Hobbes and Kant in different ways talked about this – is that humor actually arises from potentially negative circumstances. So Mark Twain has this really lovely quote that says that "the secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven." Now, I really hate to break it to the listeners – Heaven is a wonderful place, it's a blissful place, but because there's nothing wrong, there's nothing to joke about. And so that's sort of the violation side of the equation. That is that there has to be something kind of amiss with the situation – something that seems unsettling or seems threatening in some kind of way. But of course the violations in life, they don't normally make us laugh. They make us cry. They scare us. They disgust us. There has to be something else there, and that's where there's this other appraisal, this other judgment that this situation is okay, acceptable, or safe. And what happens is this negatively arousing thing – this attack, let's say, this violation of logic in absurdist humor, or a misuse of language in wordplay or pun – that negativity that normally would be the case gets transformed, gets switched, into something that's positive, and you delight in the experience, and you laugh to signal to others, oh, this situation that seems wrong is actually okay.

GRILLOT: So is this like akin to saying people are kidding about something? Because you're joking about it – so I'll just use the example of your toast last night at dinner. You said, "It's great to be here. It's much better than I thought it would be." That we laugh because –

MCGRAW: Not everybody laughed at that, actually! [Laughs]

GRILLOT: [Laughs]. Well most of us laughed, because we pretty much knew you were kidding around with us, but you weren't being serious. So is that where you draw the line? That when you're taking these kind of negative circumstances or things that could be very serious or cause harm, that you're teasing or kidding about it?

MCGRAW: Yeah, so that's one way that you could take a violation and make it okay, is that you don't really mean it. So sarcasm, for instance, has that element to it – that you're saying something that's the opposite of what you actually mean. And it's usually being said in a sort of tongue-in-cheek kind of way. That's the risk of sarcasm is not everybody realizes that what is being said is meant in a playful sort of manner. So if you think about it, some of the funniest shows on television are shows like Family Guy or South Park or The Simpsons that feature really big violations. These are people misbehaving, children misbehaving, cursing, doing things that children shouldn't be doing. But what helps make it benign, what helps make it okay, is that it's just made up, it's not real. It's in this other form. And so, there's lots of – this is the challenge, I mean, you're seeing the many, many challenges that we face – there's lots of ways the world can go wrong, and there's lots of ways that those things that are wrong could turn out to be okay. And one of them is you're just kidding, that you're in this sort of playful mindset, non-serious mindset.

GRILLOT: So let's talk about the global part of your work. You've taken this project around the world – a two-year project with 91,000 miles travelled – trying to understand what makes things funny in different cultural contexts. So did you find that there were things that were actually funny in different places? Or, as we were saying earlier, everything is very much kind of context-based and there are some jokes that just don't travel? I mean, it seems like that might be pretty challenging to even understand. 

MCGRAW: Yeah, I'm much less funny outside of the United States [laughs].

GRILLOT: Well who said you were funny here? 

MCGRAW: [Laughs]. Well, yeah, that's true. At least one person thinks I'm funny – which is me.

GRILLOT: [Laughs]. At least one person.

MCGRAW: That's the thing, our sense of humor is best suited for ourselves, because we see the world exactly the same as ourselves.

GRILLOT: And we know that we're kidding.

MCGRAW: Exactly. So, yeah, comedy doesn't travel very well. And the reason that it doesn't is because what you see as wrong and what you see as okay – these benign violations – depend on your own personal lens. So it depends on the culture that you live in. Culture sets forth a bunch of rules that we follow, our own personal experiences, our own values. And so what ends up happening is that while it's relatively easy to make a large group of people sad or a large group of people excited – as Hollywood often does with their movies – it's very hard to make a large group of people laugh, and that's because of the great variance in how people end up seeing the world. Now, that's not to say that there aren’t things that are universal. So going back to our tickling example, slapstick is fairly universal. Not everybody likes it, but most people like it in some way. And so when you do have comedy films that do sort of cross over, there is often a very strong element of sort of physical comedy there, because you don't need language. Charlie Chaplin films are still funny because of the physical comedy, because there's no language. The other thing, though, are other universal things about being human. So things like relationships or the tensions that occur when you have some sort of society. And in that way, there are those kinds of possibilities. But wherever possible, you have to eliminate that language side of things.

GRILLOT: So just to give that kind of a concrete example, we all have mothers. We all can joke about our mothers, right? Is that something that's universal? Or is there just like a place where that's off limits?

MCGRAW: That is an interesting question. I don't have a great answer to that. I would say it's probably easier to joke about mother-in-laws than it is to joke about mothers.

GRILLOT: [Laughs]. For sure.

MCGRAW: And the reason I say that is that you can sort of sense, intuit, that there's probably, in any society that has family involved outside of a couple being married, that you're going to find some tensions around that. So we're looking for conflict. So if you want to find comedy, a good place to start is with some conflict. And you're going to find some tension between a spouse and that spouse's parents.

GRILLOT: So, I have to ask, is there anything at all in comedy that's off limits? That isn't funny at all? I mean, can we joke about pretty serious topics like terrorism, genocide, rape?

MCGRAW: So, I'm by no means the person who should say what people can joke about and not joke about. I think it depends on your school of thought. So I think there's sort of two schools of thought in comedy. And one is sort of a "do no harm" school of thought. So if you're very much in “do no harm” kind of thinking, then you should just have a list of things that you just don't joke about. And you can think about very, very accomplished comedians who sort of play in that space. Jerry Seinfeld would be one of those kinds of comedians. There's another school of thought – and to be frank, I tend to follow this school of thought more – which is, everything is available, is on the table, and it just matters how good you do it. And the reason that I subscribe to this school of thought is in part because I'm wary of anyone saying, "No, you can't talk about that." So, to say that you can't joke about rape, on one hand, is to try to avoid doing harm. But then to say you can't joke about rape may decrease a conversation that might be useful about rape, in part because some comedy can point out how this is a very wrong thing to do and it can create a set of standards and a discourse that says, "this is not okay." And again, as I said, it's about how well you do it, and then you let the audience decide whether it was okay or not to do so.

GRILLOT: Well because we can't end this particular interview on that note, you've got to end with a joke.

MCGRAW: Okay, I'll tell you my favorite joke. And actually it's sort of a meta-joke because it's a joke about joking, okay? But I need your help.

GRILLOT: I'm here to help.

MCGRAW: I want you to ask me, “What is the secret to good comedy?"

GRILLOT: What is the s –

MCGRAW: Timing.

GRILLOT: [Laughs]. Perfect. Thank you very much, Peter McGraw, for being here today and for making us laugh a little bit. Thank you.

MCGRAW: My pleasure.

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