Jokes violate norms - that's why they're funny AND offensive | Barry Carter looks at the theories of comedy

Jokes violate norms - that's why they're funny AND offensive

Barry Carter looks at the theories of comedy

There are many popular theories of comedy which attempt to explain why we find something funny. None of them are perfect and for the most part they are only able to reverse engineer why something we laughed at was funny, they are yet to provide a blueprint of how to make a killer joke from scratch.

Few jokes are without a victim, even when it is one as benign as the chicken who crossed the road. Comedians getting into trouble for crossing perceived lines is not a new thing, however it does seem that these days offence taking has become weaponised. These theories provide interesting explanations as to why we find jokes funny, but can these same popular theories also give insight into why people get upset by jokes? Can they explain why the same gags cause other people to get so outraged that they form Twitter mobs, call for censorship, make death threats or worse?

The Incongruity Theory

A popular and simple theory which states that at the heart of all comedy is a surprise, when an idea is presented out of place.

For example this joke: Two fish in a tank, one of them says, 'How do we drive this then?'

We hear tank in the fishbowl sense, then we are surprised to learn it is the military type. The theory suggests that humour is found at the moment of realisation of the incongruity (Hence why we don’t laugh at the idea of talking fish, which is also absurd).

With regards to controversial humour, perhaps the sheer surprise of hearing what would otherwise be considered a faux pas in polite society is why politically incorrect jokes work. One could also make an argument that the ‘shock humour’ that we associate with people like Frankie Boyle or Anthony Jeselnik falls into this category, because they often time their jokes deliberately to go against public sentiment, which is in itself the surprise. To take this hypothesis to its logical conclusion, people who are easily offended might find the severity of the shock is simply too much.

Incongruity is a useful umbrella theory that explains the structure of jokes, but in terms of discussing offence and breaking taboos, there are better theories out there.

The Superiority Theory

This theory, which dates all the way back to Plato and Aristotle, states that humour is found when we witness the misfortune of others, which allows us to feel superior to them. So when Charlie Chaplin pratfalls, we feel a cathartic release of superiority. Rather than laughing with him, we are laughing at him, and congratulating ourselves at the same time.

At first glance such a theory appears to demonstrate comedy at its cruelest and most elite. Comedy really is punching down, instead of punching up. When comedy causes complaint, at the heart of the outrage is a perceived abuse of privilege. If this theory was your only frame of reference for comedy then most challenging and thought provoking jokes would fit into this narrative.

However, this does not necessarily mean it doesn't account for satire and the majority of comedy which actually punches up. When we laugh at a character like Cartman from South Park, we are not laughing because we feel superior to whichever marginalised group he is being sociopathic towards, we are laughing because we feel superior to his bigoted views. His character may have the perceived privilege, but we, the knowing audience, have the intellectual and moral superiority.

The fundamental flaw in this theory is that it doesn’t take into account ‘gallows humour’ where we make ourselves the butt of the joke for our own amusement, and it doesn’t take into account the ribbing of the ‘comedy roast’ where jokes against others are enjoyed by the target group. It is considered par for the course that when a touring comedian visits a city that they open with a few affectionate jokes making fun of the local sports teams, accents and amenities, and it certainly doesn’t explain why comedy fans flock to sit on the front row for comedians like Al Murray, knowing full well they are going to be picked on and teased about what they do for a living.

The Relief Theory

This theory, which stretches back to Victorian times and was popularised by Freud, certainly accounts for comedy which causes offence. It suggests that comedy is a form of relief from a social tension; an elephant in the room. We laugh at a rude joke because it allows us to relieve built up tension created by the subject matter. This is why a room full of people can be in uncontrollable hysterics over a joke they normally would claim to find abhorrent.

Not only does this explain why we can all laugh at things that, without context, could make us look cruel, it also explains why the subjects of a joke can laugh at themselves while they are in the middle of horrific circumstances.

Despite the atrocities, victims of the Holocaust used jokes to show defiance against the Nazis, as highlighted in Steve Lipman’s book Laughter in Hell, and similar research has shown that humour gets darker and more prevalent just before a political uprising. As comedy researcher Christie Davies observes, jokes are a 'thermometer but not a thermostat', ie. the severity of the humour reflects the severity of the situation. It seems that it is a necessary survival mechanism of the human condition, the ability to laugh in the face of adversity.

One could also make a strong case that not only could this mean a politically incorrect joke is cathartic in its own right, it also suggests that humour is a great tool to break the ice for difficult conversations. With the tension broken, it perhaps provides a reasonable window of time where we can talk openly about a taboo topic. Indeed, whenever a comedian crosses a perceived line and makes headlines for a controversial joke, what tends to follow (after their getting castigated) is a more open dialogue about the subject, and more awareness being raised about whatever the gag was about.

To quote veteran US comedian Jim Norton: 'The relief of comedy is we are able to laugh at these things, then spend the rest of the day reflecting on how horrible they really are.'

The flaw in this theory is that it doesn’t explain some of the sillier types of humour where there is no real tension. Puns, surreal humour, plays on words etc. A joke like: What did one toilet say to the other? A: You look a bit flushed, doesn’t really have any tension in it, but it can still be funny.

The Benign Violation Theory

This newer theory by Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren is arguably the offspring of the Relief Theory and the Incongruity Theory. It states that a joke violates our sense of what the world should be like, to the point where it seems threatening. However, the situation and context for the joke is perfectly safe, and when the receiver of the joke puts these two disparate components together, humour is found. Like in the Relief Theory, we feel that cathartic release of tension, precisely because the context is safe.

Like the Relief Theory, this theory neatly explains why politically incorrect comedy is funny and also why it is possible to laugh at something which, out of context, does not represent your world view. The fact that we are threatened by the core components of the subject matter is precisely why we find the violation funny. Unlike the Relief Theory and like the Incongruity Theory, this does explain why we can laugh at silly surreal jokes with no apparent tension. The violation does not have to be a political hot button issue, just something unusual.

This theory also explains why some people are positively outraged by some jokes. They feel the violation like the rest of us, but in their minds it is not a benign one, it does not feel safe. If they do not get the joke, nor realise if it is satire, then it is much easier to just see it as an attack. If the subject matter is a little too near the knuckle it could cause genuine distress. It even explains why the same joke can be funny when one person tells it, but horrifying when another does. Chris Rock is able to take certain liberties when he is joking about black people, because he is a black man, which makes it much safer for black and white audiences alike to find the humour knowing it is likely not from a place of hatred. However, when Michael Richards went on a racial tirade on stage, it effectively ended his career, because the context was deemed much more sinister.

The benign part of all comedy is the context, which is why it is so futile to take jokes out of context and dissect them in the media. When you enter a comedy club you are acknowledging that you are there to laugh, you are there to transgress certain taboos and you are accepting that the person on stage is to a large extent playing a character, even if it is an exaggeration of their real persona. You are also acknowledging that all jokes will be viewed in the context of the whole performance rather than in isolation.

The modern culture of outrage denies the existence of context. It may be an indictment of the short attention span and patience we all have these days that it is simply just too hard to expect most people to sit through an entire performance before judging it. It may be another example of our narcissism and how unwilling we are to tolerate discomfort that the slightest things are so ‘triggering’ that we cannot endure them long enough to see the context. Or it could be motivated ignorance. Wilfully taking jokes out of context in order to either signal how virtuous we are or to claim the cultural capital that is victimhood.

All of which explains why university campuses, once a breeding ground for edgy alternative comedy, are now all but no-go-zones for comedians. The current climate on many campuses is the belief that discourse is a form of violence, that words can harm. Hence the trend of creating ‘safe spaces’ where coddled students can be protected from dissenting ideas.

Of all the popular theories of comedy, the Benign Violation Theory does seem to explain best both why comedy needs to break taboo and also why some people are predisposed to feel outraged. That visceral response of laughing your ass off, or getting angry and complaining, are coming from the same place. When one person laughs at Cartman being racist and another person writes a blog about why South Park should be banned, they are having the same reaction, they are both acknowledging that racism is bad. The only difference is the person laughing recognises the safety of the context and the person complaining does not.

This is not to agree with the narrative that jokes genuinely harm. If the Benign Violation theory proves anything it is that, while they might be provocative, the comedian does not give offence, it is the upset audience member who takes offence.

• Barry Carter is a writer and author from Sheffield. You can find out more at

Published: 9 Feb 2016

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