Recently, several websites I follow have posted remarks about theories that are meant to explain why some things strike people as funny.
Zach Weinersmith, creator of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, wrote an essay called “An artificial One-Liner Generator” in which he advanced a tentative theory of humor as problem-solving.
Slate is running a series of articles on theoretical questions regarding things that make people laugh. The first piece, called “What Makes Something Funny,” gives a lot of credit to a researcher named Peter McGraw, who is among the pioneers of “Benign Violation Theory.” This is perhaps unsurprising, since Professor McGraw and his collaborator Joel Warner are credited as the authors of the piece. Professor McGraw and Mr Warner summarize earlier theories of humor thus:
Plato and Aristotle introduced the superiority theory, the idea that people laugh at the misfortune of others. Their premise seems to explain teasing and slapstick, but it doesn’t work well for knock-knock jokes. Sigmund Freud argued for his relief theory, the concept that humor is a way for people to release psychological tension, overcome their inhibitions, and reveal their suppressed fears and desires. His theory works well for dirty jokes, less well for (most) puns.
The majority of humor experts today subscribe to some variation of the incongruity theory, the idea that humor arises when there’s an inconsistency between what people expect to happen and what actually happens.
Professor McGraw and Mr Warner claim that incongruity theory does not stand up well to empirical testing:
Incongruity has a lot going for it—jokes with punch lines, for example, fit well. But scientists have found that in comedy, unexpectedness is overrated. In 1974, two University of Tennessee professors had undergraduates listen to a variety of Bill Cosby and Phyllis Diller routines. Before each punch line, the researchers stopped the tape and asked the students to predict what was coming next, as a measure of the jokes’ predictability. Then another group of students was asked to rate the funniness of each of the comedians’ jokes. The predictable punch lines turned out to be rated considerably funnier than those that were unexpected—the opposite of what you’d expect to happen according to incongruity theory.
To which one might reply that when Mr Cosby and Ms Diller actually performed their routines, they didn’t stop after the setup and ask the audience to predict the punchline. Nor would any audience member who wanted to enjoy the show be likely to try to predict the punchline. Doing so would make for an entirely different experience than the one the audience had paid for.
Be that as it may, Professor McGraw and Mr Warner go on to claim that their theory of “benign violation” is supported by empirical evidence:
Working with his collaborator Caleb Warren and building from a 1998 HUMOR article published by a linguist named Thomas Veatch, he hit upon the benign violation theory, the idea that humor arises when something seems wrong or threatening, but is simultaneously OK or safe.
After extolling some of the theory’s strengths, the authors go on:
Naturally, almost as soon as McGraw unveiled the benign violation theory, people began to challenge it, trying to come up with some zinger, gag, or “yo momma” joke that doesn’t fit the theory. But McGraw believes humor theorists have engaged in such thought experiments and rhetorical debates for too long. Instead, he’s turned to science, running his theory through the rigors of lab experimentation.
The results have been encouraging. In one [Humor Research Laboratory] experiment, a researcher approached subjects on campus and asked them to read a scenario based on a rumor about legendarily depraved Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. In the story—which might or might not be true—Keith’s father tells his son to do whatever he wishes with his cremated remains—so when his father dies, Keith decides to snort them. Meanwhile the researcher (who didn’t know what the participants were reading) gauged their facial expressions as they perused the story. The subjects were then asked about their reactions to the stories. Did they find the story wrong, not wrong at all, a bit of both, or neither? As it turned out, those who found the tale simultaneously “wrong” (a violation) and “not wrong” (benign) were three times more likely to smile or laugh than either those who deemed the story either completely OK or utterly unacceptable.
In a related experiment, participants read a story about a church that was giving away a Hummer H2 to a lucky member of its congregation, and were then asked if they found it funny. Participants who were regular churchgoers found the idea of mixing the sanctity of Christianity with a four-wheeled symbol of secular excess significantly less humorous than people who rarely go to church. Those less committed to Christianity, in other words, were more likely to find a holy Hummer benign and therefore funnier.
Lately, social scientists in general have been more mindful than usual of the ways in which North American undergraduates are something other than a perfectly representative sample of the human race. Joseph Henrich, Steven Heine, and Ara Noranzayan have gone so far as to ask in the title of a widely cited paper whether the populations most readily available for study by psychologists and other social scientists are in fact “The weirdest people in the world?” In that paper, Professors Henrich, Heine, and Noranzayan use the acronym “WEIRD,” meaning Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic. Their abstract:
Behavioral scientists routinely publish broad claims about human psychology and behavior in the world’s top journals based on samples drawn entirely from Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) societies. Researchers – often implicitly – assume that either there is little variation across human populations, or that these “standard subjects” are as representative of the species as any other population. Are these assumptions justified? Here, our review of the comparative database from across the behavioral sciences suggests both that there is substantial variability in experimental results across populations and that WEIRD subjects are particularly unusual compared with the rest of the species – frequent outliers. The domains reviewed include visual perception, fairness, cooperation, spatial reasoning, categorization and inferential induction, moral reasoning, reasoning styles, self-concepts and related motivations, and the heritability of IQ. The findings suggest that members of WEIRD societies, including young children, are among the least representative populations one could find for generalizing about humans. Many of these findings involve domains that are associated with fundamental aspects of psychology, motivation, and behavior – hence, there are no obvious a priori grounds for claiming that a particular behavioral phenomenon is universal based on sampling from a single subpopulation. Overall, these empirical patterns suggests that we need to be less cavalier in addressing questions of human nature on the basis of data drawn from this particularly thin, and rather unusual, slice of humanity. We close by proposing ways to structurally re-organize the behavioral sciences to best tackle these challenges.
It would be particularly easy to see why a theory like Benign Violation would have a special appeal to undergraduates. Undergraduate students are rewarded for learning to follow sets of rules, both the rules of academic disciplines which their teachers expect them to internalize and the rules of social behavior appropriate to people who,like most undergraduates, are living independent adult lives for the first time. So, I suppose if one wanted to defend Superiority Theory (as for example mentioned by Aristotle in his Poetics, 1449a, p. 34-35,) one would be able to use the same results, saying that students simultaneously saw themselves as superior both to the characters in the jokes who did not follow the usual rules and to those who would enforce those rules in too narrowly literalistic a fashion to fit with the overall approach of higher education, where innovation and flexibility are highly valued. Here the WEIRD phenomenon comes into play as well, since cultures vary in their ideas of what rules are and what relationship they have to qualities like innovation and flexibility. Moreover, one could also say that the judgment that a particular violation is or is not benign itself implies superiority over those involved in the violation, and that this implication of superiority is what generates laughter.
Also, because undergraduates are continually under pressure to internalize one set of rules after another, they often show anxiety related to sets of rules. This may not be the sort of thing Sigmund Freud had in mind when he talked about Oedipal anxiety, but it certainly does drive undergraduates to seek relief. Example of action that is at once quite all right and by no means in accordance with the rules may well provide that relief.
Incongruity theorists may find comfort in Professor McGraw’s results, as well. The very name “Benign Violation” as well as experimental rubrics such as “wrong” and “not wrong” are incongruous combinations by any definition. So a defender of Incongruity Theory may claim Benign Violation as a subcategory of Incongruity Theory, and cite these results in support of that classification.
Professor McGraw is evidently aware of these limitations. He and Mr Warner explain what they did to rise above them:
[T]hree years ago, he set off on an international exploration of the wide world of humor—with me, a Denver-based journalist, along for the ride to chronicle exactly what transpired. Our journey took us from Japan to the West Bank to the heart of the Amazon, in search of various zingers, wisecracks and punch lines that would help explain humor once and for all. The result is The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, to be published next week—on April Fool’s Day, naturally. As is often the case with good experiments—not to mention many of the funniest gags—not everything went exactly as planned, but we learned a lot about what makes the world laugh.
It isn’t April First yet, so I don’t know how well they have done in their efforts to expand their scope.
One sentence that struck me wrong in Professor McGraw and Mr Warner’s piece was this one, about Superiority Theory, that it “seems to explain teasing and slapstick, but it doesn’t work well for knock-knock jokes.” I’m not at all sure about that one. In a knock-knock joke, there are two hypothetical characters who take turns delivering five lines of dialogue. The first character to speak is the Knocker (whose first line is always “Knock-knock!”) The second character to speak is the Interlocutor (whose first line is always “Who’s there?”) The Knocker’s second line is an unsatisfactory answer to this question. The Interlocutor’s second line begins by repeating this incomplete answer, then adds the question word “who?” The Knocker’s third line then delivers the punchline in the form of a repetition of the unsatisfactory answer followed by one or more additional syllables that change the apparent meaning of the initial unsatisfactory answer.
Knock-knock jokes became popular in the USA in the 1950s, as part of a national craze. The first joke recorded in this mid-twentieth century craze, I have read, is the following:
I: Who’s there?
K: Sam and Janet.
I: Sam and Janet who?
K: Sam and Janet evening! (sung to the tune of this song)
Apparently all of the jokes that brought the form into such prominence in the 1950s that they are still beloved today by seven-year-olds of all ages took this form, in which the punchline involved the Knocker bursting into song with a popular Broadway tune of the period.
I think the jokes from this original craze almost have to be examples of superiority. The Knocker is confident that the Interlocutor will be surprised when the punchline is presented under the usual conditions of the joke. This is not to deny that if the joke were interrupted and the Interlocutor were asked to predict the punchline, after the manner of Professor McGraw’s students the Interlocutor might be able to do so. When it is presented the Interlocutor will join in his or her satisfaction at being part of the relatively elite portion of the population who recognize current Broadway hits when they hear them.
As knock-knock jokes have become more familiar over the decades, meta-knock-knock jokes have gained a following. For example, a person named Alice might play the Knocker in this joke:
K: Knock knock!
I: Who’s there?
I: Alice who?
K: Alice (in a tone suggesting that she is wounded that the Interlocutor doesn’t recognize her)
The met-knock-knock joke suggests superiority to the genre of knock-knock jokes. If first-order knock-knock jokes are popular among seven-year-olds of all ages, meta-knock-knock jokes are popular among eight-year-olds of all ages, suggesting superiority to those who still persist in telling first-order knock-knock jokes.
The world’s most hated knock-knock joke is this meta-knock-knock:
K: Knock, knock.
I: Who’s there?
I: Banana who?
K: Knock, knock.
I: Who’s there?
I: Banana who?
K: Knock, knock.
I: Who’s there?
I: Orange who?
K: ORANGE YOU GLAD I DIDN’T SAY BANANA!
This joke attacks the several parts of the shared understanding between Knocker and Interlocutor. The joke is more than five lines long, the fifth line does not take the form original unsatisfactory response + additional syllable or syllables, the Knocker expects the Interlocutor to repeat his or her two lines multiple times, and the punchline does not include a repetition of the original unsatisfactory response. For the experienced Interlocutor, these attacks are an undue imposition on the Knocker-Interlocutor relationship. For anyone else, the whole thing would be utterly pointless.
Hated as the joke is, Knockers of a particular sort, mostly eight-year-old boys, seem unable to resist it. Willing Interlocutors can rely on these boys to laugh uproariously every time they drag them through the ritual responses. Here too, Superiority Theory seems to be the only explanation for the boys’ laughter and the strain tolerating the joke puts on the Interlocutors. The Knockers who enjoy the joke laugh at their own power to inflict it on their Interlocutors.
Each time a potential Interlocutor is confronted with “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana,” the joke gets a bit more annoying. Perhaps this is because of an aspect of politeness recently referenced on yet another of my favorite sites, Language Log. There it was mentioned that Penelope Brown and Stephen Levinson, founders of “Politeness Theory,” have provided conceptual tools to enable us to distinguish between situations in which statements offering information the hearer should already have suggest that the hearer does not already know that information and thereby offend the hearer and those which do not carry that suggestion and which therefore do not offend the hearer. A joke with a painfully obvious punchline may fall in the first category, as do the reiterated responses in “Orange you glad I didn’t say banana.” Casual remarks about the weather and other forms of small talk usually fall in the second category, as do formalized utterances generally.