What makes something funny? What does it mean when a joke fails? If laughter isn’t really the best medicine, can we all at least agree that it’s at least as effective as homeopathy or eating Big League Chew while watching reruns of Jeopardy?
Peter McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado who’s devoted much of his academic career to studying humor and tackling such maddening questions. He’s spent years looking at how humor reveals important truths about the human psyche. He’s authored papers about how funny public service announcements are sabotaging their own causes, determining precisely when it’s “too soon” to joke about a sensitive topic, and what’s even the point of making jokes in the first place.
McGraw catalogued his travels around the world—from donning a clown costume in the Amazonian rainforest to searching for the funniest people in Palestine—in a book called The Humor Code, and he created a center at University of Colorado, Boulder, dedicated to studying humor. It’s the Humor Research Lab, but everyone just calls it HuRL.
Recently, HuRL has started not just studying makes something funny but also developing new ways to appreciate and produce humor. McGraw and his colleagues aren’t just interested in deconstructing fart jokes; they’re looking to give people the tools to construct fart jokes funnier than anyone has ever imagined. HuRL recently partnered with Colorado-based app developer Quick Left for a comedy hack day earlier this month and joined with Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight for a video showing McGraw’s progress helping a local brewery owner be funnier.
The Kernel caught up with McGraw to learn more about the psychology of comedy, how the Internet is simultaneously a boon and a bane for good comedy, and why you’ll never be able to escape dumb memes.
“That’s one of the challenges with comedy: When one person is laughing and another person is horrified, it’s very difficult for them to put themselves in another person’s shoes.”
How did you first become interested in researching what makes things funny?
I was [once] posed a challenging question during a talk at Tulane University. I was doing research at the time on what makes things “wrong” in terms of moral judgements, and I gave a provocative—some might say funny—example. A faculty member in the back of the room raised her hand and pointed out the inconsistency between what I was saying and what I was doing. I was saying that moral violations cause anger and disgust; people were outraged by them. And yet, here was a room full of academics chuckling at something that most of us would agree was morally wrong.
That [question] stuck with me. I found myself puzzling over it, unsure of the answer. I started thinking more and more about what an important topic this is. No one in my field of behavioral economics—people who care about judgment, emotion, and choice—was looking at it. It’s an important thing that was being understudied.
The theoretical foundation behind your research is the benign violation theory of comedy. What is that?
The idea is that humor arises from things that simultaneously seem wrong yet OK. Things that are confusing yet make sense. Things that are threatening yet safe. That creates some arousal, which turns positive when you also recognize this thing that’s bad is actually not bad. This thing that’s threatening is actually safe. It’s these benign violations that we laugh at. That’s actually a really critical element to this, why it is that we laugh. Why is it that we don’t need language to communicate this recognition? Babies do it; chimpanzees do it. There’s some evidence that rats do something akin to it. You’re basically pointing out to others that this situation that seems wrong is actually OK.
Does that fundamentally change when humor is delivered over the Internet rather than face-to-face or in a comedy club?
Internet has had a huge effect on comedy. What it has done, more than anything else, is increase reach and diversity. If you think back to not even that long ago, your opportunities for high-quality comedy were rather limited. Most people in the world don’t live in a place that has a comedy club. One-third of Americans don’t live anywhere close to a comedy club. Even if you did, there was a limited repertoire of comics coming through. You turn to television or radio, you also had limited choices. You had three major networks, and you had this broad broadcast style of programming. If you lived in Kansas and there was particular type of comedy you liked, you just never got to experience it. Maybe you never figured out what you could like. Now you can. Now the world is your oyster, and you can find exactly the thing that’s perfect for you.
It helps women, especially, because of the biases that exist in a male-dominated business. It’s good to see that women have additional outlets to prove that they can overcome those biases.
“When you and I laugh at something, it says we see the world in the same way.”
It used to be club managers and network executives and talent agents and bookers, and all these people [were gatekeepers] who valued a particular form of comedy. Now, because of Twitter and YouTube, you now have people who are really very funny, but might not be funny from the traditional sense. They can then rise in prominence because they have 2 million Twitter followers or a million people subscribed to their YouTube channel.
The Internet has triggered an explosion in people getting offended by jokes and then there being a backlash to those taking offense. Is this the result of jokes getting wider exposure online, or is it indicative of a larger change in the culture?
[The structure of the Internet means a] lot of people who weren’t intended to see a particular joke are now seeing it. It’s a much more segmented marketplace. You hear these stories about comedians who say the wrong thing in a club and then everybody and their mom knows about it. That quip may have never been intended for a broad audience. It was supposed to be made for a very segmented, narrow audience.
There’s a saying that [the news industry] needs to feed the beast. There are more places than ever to find information, but it’s an increasingly competitive environment. People are on the lookout for more and more things, and controversy sells. When you can find someone who ought not to have said something, saying that thing, it’s like the perfect storm: more content than ever, more segmentation than ever, and then a lot of people who stand to profit from eyeballs. You’re going to get more and more of these kinds of controversies.
The whole structure of the Internet is primed for people to say dumb things and then have other people get mad at them for saying those dumb things.
They often don’t think that what they’re saying is dumb. That’s one of the challenges with comedy: When one person is laughing and another person is horrified, it’s very difficult for them to put themselves in another person’s shoes. Something that was meant for a small set of friends or a set of donors and someone’s recording it, it’s great fodder.
“It seems like everyone likes LOLcats because they seem to be everywhere, but it’s just that there are a small number of people who really, really like LOLcats.”
University of Arkansas political scientist Patrick Stewart wrote a book about humor in political debates. He found candidates make more jokes during primary debates than during general election debates. It’s safer to make those jokes when the viewers all sort of share the same orientation, when the candidates are more alike than different. When you go to the general election, you have much more diversity in terms of opinions. You could also argue that the stakes go up, but I don’t believe that. I think it has to do with when these things are more likely to land and land well.
Memes are arguably the default form of humor on the Internet. Why?
I’ll preface this by saying I haven’t studied this directly. But I’m not sure memes are as pervasive as we think they are. The reason is that it actually takes some shared knowledge or some developed understanding to memes to start to really work. There’s the [NBA star] Kevin Durant You the Real MVP meme. That’s an interesting one because you have to know who Kevin Durant is, you have to know his had this very tearful award speech. You have to have some background to that. The more narrow the background that you need [to understand a joke], the harder it is to make it generally funny.
It keeps coming back to this notion of segmentation. When you and I laugh at something, it says we see the world in the same way. We have similar experiences, we’re from a similar culture, we have similar values, lifestyle, etc.
The Cheezburger Network is huge. It gets hundreds of millions of unique pageviews. It has at least 50 different websites; it very clearly is a network. It recognizes that not everybody likes LOLcats. It seems like everyone likes LOLcats because they seem to be everywhere, but it’s just that there are a small number of people who really, really like LOLcats.
It’s hard to get an accurate sense of scale on the Internet when one person is sending out 200 LOLcats and another person is writing one joke. Is this all the work of one person or 200?
What’s interesting about memes is that they don’t just have one producer. Someone might start it. But then it becomes the crowd’s, so that amplifies it. There’s not one person in his basement turning out Kevin Durant meme after Kevin Durant meme. Memes become bigger than Louis C.K. jokes or Key & Peele sketches because there’s one Key & Peele and there’s only one Louis C.K.. They can only produce so much content. But a meme… Once the template is out there, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of people can create them. That makes it seem like there are a lot more of them then there is any other style, because any other sort of joke is more connected to the individual [telling it].
“I wrote a blog post about the Success Kid meme and the Success Kid’s mom responded to my blog post, which was the most exciting response I’ve ever gotten in a blog post.”
I have looked at one meme. I’m an expert in one meme, the Success Kid. Success Kid is this little kid looking very proud. The Success Kid meme has two elements. At the top, it says something bad and, at the bottom, the copy is that bad thing doesn’t end up being bad. It’s the definition of a benign violation.
I wrote a blog post about the Success Kid meme and the Success Kid’s mom responded to my blog post, which was the most exciting response I’ve ever gotten in a blog post.
What did she say?
She said that she liked the benign violation theory, and it pretty much sums up what it’s like to be the mother of Success Kid.
There’s an old adage that insists explaining a joke robs that joke of its humor. As someone who explains jokes for a living, is that true?
In general, the more you’re into an analytical mindset, the less amusing something is. Comedy plays on arousal. When you’re in a detached, intellectual mindset, you’re in a much colder state. You’re not in a hot, aroused state. That doesn’t mean that people can’t appreciate something that’s funny. There’s this phenomenon that grizzled comedy veterans experience, where you’re sitting in the back of a comedy club and the audience is roaring with laughter. You lean over to your friend and say, “That joke was very funny.” Cognitively, you know it’s funny. You recognize it as funny. But emotionally it’s not having the same effect.
Just because analyzing a joke makes it less amusing, doesn’t mean there’s no value in doing it. If you want to become a better comic, you want to analyze jokes. If you want to understand what makes things funny, you have to analyze jokes. You just don’t want the viewing audience at home or in the theater or whatever analyzing jokes. Everything has its place.
Photo via Colleen Morgan/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed