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What Makes Things Funny?

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@PeterMcGraw & @CalebWarren

question: What makes things funny?

answer: Benign violations

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Who are these guys?

Peter McGraw is an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder. He directs the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL) and co-authored The Humor Code.

Caleb Warren is an assistant professor of marketing at Texas A&M, where he studies what makes things funny and what makes things cool.

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Humor is a psychological response characterized by:

•  an emotion - amusement •  a judgment – that is funny •  a behavior - laughter

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Humor is: - attractive

- pleasurable

- entertaining "

Humor benefits: - relationships (Wanted: Good Sense of Humor ) - coping

- creativity

- eases criticism

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Humor can hurt people (e.g., bullying) Failed humor attempts can create negative emotions

And Gilbert Gottfried loses his job as the Aflac duck.


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Violations threatens a person’s well-being, identity, or normative belief structure They likely originated as threats to physical well-being, but because of evolution, now include violations of culture, language, and logic.

Violation condition

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Humorists see violations in comedy

“Comedy is a man in trouble.” "

- Jerry Lewis

“The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow; there  is no humor in heaven.”"

- Mark Twain

“Humor  is reason gone mad.”

- Groucho Marx

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Threats to physical well-being are a nearly universal source of humor. Even babies and non-human animals laugh when physically threatened in a safe and playful manner.

Physical violations

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Threats to a person or a group of people’s pride, dignity, or sense of self.

Identity violations

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Thing that breaks a social or cultural norm (given the person generally accepts the norm as valid)

“Man marries pillow”

Cultural violations

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Breaking a communication or linguistic norm (e.g., sarcasm, unusual accents, grammar errors, etc.)

Communication violations

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Anything that seems illogical or doesn’t make sense

Logic violations

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In order to be humorous, a violation needs to seem acceptable, okay, or sensible.

Benign condition

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It is easier to see a violation as benign if there are no harmful consequences (yet).

Benign: Harmless

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It is easier to see a violation as benign if it happened a long time ago, afflicts someone else, or isn’t real.

Hypothetical violation

Benign: Distance

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It is easier to see a violation as benign if the behavior follows another norm, custom, or rule.

More benign

Benign: Alternative norm

Less benign

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It is easier to see a violation as benign if you personally don’t care about the person or the norm that the violation threatens.

More benign (for Americans)

Benign: Commitment

Less benign (for Americans)

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In order to experience humor, people have to see both the violation and benign interpretations simultaneously.


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Why this is funny (to some people)

Punching your mom is a violation, but it is benign because it is coming from a place of love (plus a kid wrote it).

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Wrong use of “best pick up line,” but okay because it is technically correct.

Why this is funny (to some people)

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Why this is funny (to some people)

It’s wrong to clean your mother’s vagina, but it’s okay because the phone said it by accident.

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Is a benign violation when done by someone you trust. Is purely benign when you try to tickle yourself. Is purely a violation when a creepy stranger tickles you.

Case: Tickling

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Sarcasm involves saying one thing but meaning the opposite, thus violating a common conversational norm. When successful, the person making the comment is able to communicate a benign intention through other cues like an obviously exaggerated tone.

Case: Sarcasm

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Slapstick creates painful circumstances (violation) that are not painful(benign), at least for the observer. The victim is not actually hurt (it is often just an act) or the viewer does not care about the victim’s well-being (or both).

Case: Slapstick

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Realizing that something that seems threatening is actually okay transforms a potentially negative experience into a positive one (akin to relief).

Why humor is

a positive experience

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Why we laugh

Laughter likely originated as a primitive form of communication signaling that an apparent threat is benign.

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Even rats seem to “laugh”

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Situations that fail to be funny either depict a violation that is not benign, or depict a benign situation that has no violation.

Purely benign (not funny – boring)

Purely a violation (not funny – offensive)

How humor attempts fail

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Benign violations depend on physical vulnerabilities, identity, values, culture, language, and understanding of logic.

A baby farting at a fancy dinner is normal to the baby, hilarious to the rambunctious older brother, and embarrassing to the mother who wants to make a good impression on others.

Individual & cultural differences

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“Humor is tragedy plus time.” - Mark Twain

The importance of timing

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re H




Greater distance reduces the threat of a severe violation helping make it a benign violation. But greater distance also removes the threat of a mild violation, making it purely benign.

Time doesn’t make everything funnier

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Same for physical distance

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Same for physical distance

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Because violations underlie humor, it can be used to bully and exclude people. “Comedy is a man in trouble. – Jerry Lewis

The dark side of comedy

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People facing great suffering, from Holocaust victims to prisoners of war, found humor to be an important way to cope. Finding a way to laugh at your troubles by transforming violations into benign violations can help you feel better.

"Humor does not diminish the pain - it makes the space around it get bigger.“ - Allen Klein

The coping bene!ts of comedy

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Visit the Humor Research Lab’s benign violation theory page. Watch a video - or two - or three

Check out:

The Humor Code: A Global Search for

What Makes Things Funny

Want to learn more?

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•  Sales"•  Social media"•  Customer service"•  Training"•  Innovation"•  Negotiations"•  Employee engagement"•  Change management"

Coming soon: Applications to business

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@PeterMcGraw @CalebWarren

Thank you!

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