The secret of comedy revealed

(Prepare to be disappointed)

Researchers reckon they’ve cracked the secret of comedy, even if their findings will hardly come as a surprise.

Psychologists say humour comes from what they call ‘benign violation’ – a challenge to the normal way of things that is, however, not a threat.

Pyschoanalyst Peter McGraw, who co-wrote the new study, said that most previous theories of humor all come up short. Freud thought humour came from a release of tension; another theory holds that comedy comes from a sense of superiority, and a third proposed from incongruity.

But he points out that all of these could happen if you accidentally killed your spouse, but that wouldn’t be funny. He believes that instead, a situation might be humourous only if it also seems benign.

To test the theory, researchers from the University of Colorado-Boulder, asked volunteers what was funnier: a farmer promoting a range of pork sausages – or a rabbi. Rather predictably, the rabbi was considered more amusing.

The next scenario had either a church or a credit union raffling off an SUV to attract new members. Whether the participants were amused by the church version depended in part on whether they went to church themselves; non-believers were more likely to think it funny because, McGraw said, they are ‘not particularly committed to the sanctity of churches’ – so for them, the moral violation seems benign. Another experiment confirmed that people who have more psychological distance from a moral violation are more likely to be amused.

‘We laugh when Moe hits Larry because we know that Larry’s not really being hurt,’ says McGraw, referring to the slapstick of the Three Stooges. ‘It’s a violation of social norms. You don’t hit people, especially a friend. But it’s OK because it’s not real.’

He points out a recent example, an internet video of a chain-smoking toddler. ‘When I was first told about that, I laughed, because it seems unreal. The fact that the situation seemed unbelievable made it benign. Then when I saw the video of this kid smoking, it was no longer possible to laugh about it.’

McGraw thinks the theory works for other kinds of humoyr, such as puns, which break a linguistic convention or rule but are still OK because they adhere to another rule, so the sentence still makes sense. It also explains why dramas and action movies play better outside of their home countries than comedies do. ‘It’s hard to find a comedy that’s funny cross-culturally because the ways that violations can be benign differ from culture to culture.

‘The comedy that is funny cross-culturally tends to involve a lot of physical humor. The violations are clear no matter who you are,’ he says.

The research is published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

But as Ken Dodd said about the earlier attempts to psychoanalyse humour, it’s all well and good but ‘Freud never played second house at the Glasgow Empire after both Celtic and Rangers had lost’.

Published: 12 Aug 2010

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