Originally published January 4, 2014

The Theory of Funniness

I recently ran across a new psychological theory which purports to pin down exactly what it is that makes something funny. It’s called the Benign Violation theory, and it basically says that for something to be funny, it has to constitute some form of violation — in either the sense of breaking the rules, or the sense of an assault — in a way that’s somehow harmless. The inventors of this theory claim it explains everything from puns to tickling.

What are the past theories it’s contending against, and how well do they do at predicting what is funny? The other contenders essentially boil down to two ideas: the idea that humor is based on seeing someone else encounter misfortune (the “superiority theory”), or the idea that humor is based on noticing and resolving incongruity. The latter has many offshoots and variants, but they are all based on the same core concept. (There’s also a sort of Freudian theory that says laughter is about release of tension, but as far as I can see this lacks any predictive utility, so I’m going to ignore it.)

Let’s dispose first of the superiority theory. Here’s a moment which made me loudly guffaw with no one else around: I was driving down California’s magnificent Pacific Coast Highway, one of the most scenic roads anywhere on Earth, in a state of utter joy, and I encountered a sign that said “Begin Scenic Route”. Incongruity theory works fine for illustrating the humor in this, but superiority theory utterly fails.

Superiority theory also totally fails to show why a pun can be funny.

Let’s list some of the kinds of laugh-inducing experiences which different kinds of theory will need to stretch to explain:

Not a lot in common across that list.

Incongruity theory can cover a lot of ground. It explains why, if you’re dining outdoors and bird shit suddenly lands on the food, it’s funnier on a birthday cake than on a salad. (Yes, I know this from experience.) It might stretch to both ends on the issue of exceptionally stupid or exceptionally smart vocabulary. It explains why it’s funny to see someone caught by his own practical joke. But it has to work a lot harder to explain the humor in a successful practical joke, or in a pie to the face, unless the recipient is unusually dignified. Both of those are cases where the benign violation theory seems to hit dead center.

The benign violation theory, in turn, has to stretch for some cases. You really have to work at finding secondary meanings of the word “violation” to explain the humor of kittens, or why an insult is better if it’s cleverly rhymed and flowed in a rap battle. It looks to me like once you stretch the word “violation” far enough, it pretty much gets reduced to being a synonym for “incongruity”, as the only thing being violated is our expectation of what should normally happen — that is, our sense of congruity.

One other approach is the suggestion I read which speculates on an evolutionary purpose for humor, besides being a way to demonstrate a sharp mind for sexual selection purposes: it helps us spot bad thinking. We laugh at ignorance and misperceptions and wrong logic. Humor rewards us for being alert to cognitive errors. This has real survival value. And it’s a point in favor of incongruity theory, which matches this supposition pretty well.

It also helps explain the humor of puns. To intentionally do something that would ordinarily be a sign of a mental error, but then show that it was actually a product of cleverness, is doubly humorous: it’s laughable both as a specimen of wrong thinking, and because of the incongruity of being simultaneously stupid and smart. This also applies to a broad category of jokes that are based on the teller applying some kind of loopy invalid logic, a la Gracie Allen or Steve Martin. My own joke-cracking often leans in this direction.

It also helps explain the humor of practical jokes and pranks, such as it is. A key element of a good prank is that it subjects the victim to pain or humiliation that they could have avoided if they were more aware or more suspicious. The goal of the prank is not just to discomfit the victim physically, but to make them look unintelligent. Often, the logic of how the victim was supposed to be able to avoid it by being smarter is invalid, but I think the connection probably still exists, if only as an unexamined self-serving rationalization in the mind of the prankster.

There’s an element of this which plays into social control. In traditional subsistence cultures, such as among hunter-gatherers, a lot of social control is accomplished through shaming, as there is often little else that can be done to bring a wayward individual back into line. If the matter is not serious, this may often be in the form of mockery — joshing and ribbing and insults, which if done humorously helps get the audience on the side of the mocker instead of the mockee, while the target gets to know it isn’t to be taken too seriously, though they still feel the sting. Such societies may find it quite necessary to take anyone with a big ego down a peg, as this may be their only defense to preserve an egalitarian order against a rise of dominance and privilege, or unregulated violence. Hunter-gatherers have been known to express their worry by saying that if a young man starts to feel like he’s better than other people around him, then the end result is that he’s eventually going to kill somebody.

But... speaking of animals, consider this video clip of a shorebird feeding in mud, which I shot a few months ago. In the middle of the sequence, a duck walks through the frame. Some viewers crack up every time they see the duck. Why is that duck funny? It certainly isn’t because we’ve spotted ignorance or invalid logic.

I suppose the answer probably has something to do with misattributing human qualities to animals. Maybe some part of our minds treats the featured willet as the star of the scene, and the duck as a bumbler who doesn’t know to stay out of the shot. This is emphasized by how he pauses directly in front of the willet. That would make sense both as incongruity and as violation, if we were filming people. And maybe squirrel antics are funny because it’s incongruous, or a violation, to imagine a human carrying them out. Maybe.

Bringing it back to human beings, why is a Jackie Chan fight funnier than a Chuck Norris fight? One reason is that when the opponent is about to hurt him, Jackie looks momentarily terrified, while Chuck is of course incapable of fear. Score one for superiority theory. But then Jackie improvises something unorthodox and surprising to counterattack, scoring one for incongruity. Like a squirrel, he looks too ordinary to do what he does. The look of terror which is not followed by getting hurt counts as benign violation, but taking that away wouldn’t remove all the humor. Bugs Bunny gets endless laughs out of winning in unexpected ways, usually without losing a confident expression. And in some escapades, everything that Bugs avoids ends up happening to Daffy, which is a challenge to explain as benign violation.

So it’s looking to me like both the incongruity rule and the benign violation rule cover about two thirds of cases quite well, but each have to stretch and struggle to cover some parts — and often those are the parts that are best covered by the other. Something like, say, tipping over an occupied outhouse (which is funny if you’re mean enough to have a very broad notion of “benign”) is pure violation with no real incongruity, whereas a comic actor’s stagey mugging is hard to construe as any sort of violation... I suppose you could argue that he’s “violating” his own dignity, but that’s obviously a stretch to try to make the word fit.

To examine the last case in a bit more detail, let’s say our comic actor is playing a scientist or inventor. He gets an idea and loudly says “A-ha!”. Why is it funnier if, while saying so, he points his right index finger straight up? I really can’t find a resonable way to apply the word “violation” to that. What he’s doing is making a callback to a cultural trope or stereotype in which that gesture was considered appropriate for such a declaration. It’s incongruous, one might say, because our experience is that people saying “aha” in real life don’t do this.

Here’s a tricky one. Let’s say our comic actor is playing an upper class toff. Sometimes he gets a laugh by using a word or phrase that’s just especially redolent of the stereotype he’s playing — when he’s been sounding snooty all along, but then comes up with something that seems even snootier than before. It’s hard to see how this is either an incongruity or a violation, because instead of applying a twist to our expectations, he’s reinforcing them. The humor seems to come from a reaction that says, we thought we had the measure of how much this character differs from you and me, but now it turns out he’s even more unlike us than we thought. The same can happen with any other character type we have strong stereotypical expectations of, like a southern redneck or a drag queen or a hippie or a New Jersey mafioso.

You can get humor out of any situation where you deal with a person whose culture is strongly different from ours. The theory that humor is there to detect bad thinking applies here, I think: when we look for erroneous logic and misperception and ignorance, the differences between cultures can easily register as false positives. The person seems locally ignorant and foolish, regardless of how clever and knowledgeable they really are. And I suppose that’s an incongruity relative to how we expect our friends and neighbors to act.

So when I first heard about the benign violation theory it seemed pretty persuasive, but after examination I’m now leaning toward the conclusion that it covers more ground than incongruity only if you try to stretch the concept of “violation” to include incongruity as a subset.

In conclusion, I’d just like to grumble about how people get excited about a theory and convince themselves that it explains everything. A lot of these humor theorists are guilty of that — they’re sure their pet theory is not just the truth, but the whole truth. And here, it clearly isn’t. There is more than one kind of humor.

Addendum: Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, has worked out a systematic theory which he uses for his joke writing: a theory not of the why of humor, but the how. He divides humor into six dimensions, and says good jokes are ones that manage to include three or four of them simultaneously, and a joke needs at least two to be funny at all. The dimensions are cleverness, cuteness, bizarreness, cruelty, naughtiness, and recognizability. The concept of violation applies when something is naughty, cruel, or bizarre, but not when it’s clever or cute or recognizable. Incongruity doesn’t do much better; it may sometimes come into play due to cleverness, but cuteness and recognizability have nothing to do with it, and cruelty and naughtiness only marginally do.

The recognizability element, by the way, is why successful humor is often sprinkled with pop culture references, and why Friedberg & Seltzer have made tons of money with “parody” movies that do nothing but quote scenes and catchphrases from other films. And it’s an aspect that the other theories scarcely recognize at all (and indeed, I never even considered it in my prior writing above). Even the evolutionary perspective on humor, which has no problem explaining the importance of cleverness, and not much trouble with cuteness or naughtiness or bizarreness or cruelty either, is left with nothing to say about why people find things funnier if you add references to stuff that’s merely familiar. And far from enabling incongruity, this use of familiarity can be antithetical to it. If humor is supposed to be surprising and unexpected, why is it aided by mixing in the opposite of surprise?

What I notice personally is that this works best when it’s used with targets that have become excessively familiar, which we wish occupied a smaller part of our awareness. Things such as corporate brands and ad campaigns, or overexposed celebrities. In fact, I’d say it mainly works when the target of the reference has some aspect to it that people find annoying. It doesn’t add humor to throw in a reference to a splendid sunset or a soaring eagle, but it can if you refer to things that have something obnoxious to them, like traffic jams or TV blowhards or discarded fast food wrappers. It also helps if the familiarity feels somewhat particular or local, rather than generic and universal — things which we recognize as touchstones of our own daily culture, which we don’t share with everyone. So a comic will reference the jams on a particular highway, name a particular blowhard, or mention garbage from a particular fast food chain. (For some reason, McDonald’s is always the funniest one. Perhaps because we see it as the ur-fastfood, the original, the franchise against which all others are measured. But also because it may be the least convincing of the bunch when pretending to have any class.) Sometimes, humor does also benefit from pop culture callbacks to stuff we thoroughly enjoyed, such as favorite movies, but I think even in this case it tends to be the ones that have become a little too popular, a little too frequently talked about.

But this just means that they are suitable targets for mockery. Maybe part of what’s going on is just that we perceive such references to be mocking even when nothing explicitly mocking has been said. But I don’t think that’s the whole story; Adams (who may be an utter douchebag when it comes to certain political and social subjects, but certainly knows how to make money with humor) is onto something. I think there probably is something about grounding humor in the familiar which helps even if no mockery is involved. Why that should be, I have no idea.

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