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What Makes Something Funny? Benign Violation Theory

My mother was one of those parents who cared too much. And like a lot of parents who cared too much, she would often say things that were designed to keep her kids safe and out of trouble, but were really just terrible things to say.

Her strategy of choice was to either repeat horrible cautionary tales that she had heard (but probably weren’t even true)—you know, like the razor blade in the apple stories—or she would make up stories completely.

One time we were riding in the car and she said, “There was a boy who stuck his head out of the window when the car was going fast and a telephone pole KNOCKED HIS HEAD OFF.”

“what makes something funny?”

She’d say it in this really serious tone, too, like this was the kind of thing that happened to boys who stuck their heads out of car windows.

Her best one ever, though, was the time we went to the grocery store. I swear this is true.

It was Giant Open Air Market in Norfolk, VA—it’s burned into my memory—and she said, “There was a boy who wandered off from his mom in the grocery store and went into the bathroom by himself and a man hiding in there CUT HIS PENIS OFF.”

So I turned out perfectly normal and—big shocker—I decided to become a psychologist when I grew up. Surprise! Now I can say, “Tell me about your mother!”


What Makes Something Funny? Benign Violation Theory

Now for those of you who laughed at those stories, my question is why did you think it was funny? And for those who didn’t think it was funny, why not?

The answers to those questions explain a lot about the psychology of humor or why we find some things funny and not other things. After all, what’s so funny about a mother saying horrible things to her child?

Some of you might have found it funny. Others might have found it troubling and unfunny.

There’s a whole psychology of humor and there’s one particular theory that claims to explain why everything we think is funny is actually funny.

It’s called the Benign Violation Theory and it was developed by Peter McGraw, who is a psychology professor and the director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado. (Wait, there’s a “Humor Research Lab?”).

Why are things funny? Why do we find things funny? Well, there’s a whole psychology of humor and the Benign Violation Theory explains why things are funny!

He and a journalist named Joel Warner wrote a book about it called The Humor Code where they traveled the world in search of what makes something funny.

Here’s what the Benign Violation Theory says: Humor occurs when and only when two conditions apply at the same moment: 1) a situation is a violation, and 2) it is benign.

Another way to say this is the “if laughing at this is wrong, why does it feel so right?” theory. Allow me to explain!

A “violation” is anything that threatens or challenges a person’s notion of how the world ought to be. Something seems “wrong” about the situation. A mother trying to control her child with stories of decapitation or castration seems somehow wrong.

Humans do a lot of weird things, so there are a lot of opportunities for something to go wrong, as in this video:

Perhaps a slight overreaction…

In comedy, the violation also has to be “benign.” We know in that video that nothing bad really happened. The chicken wasn’t going to hurt him and him acting like a histrionic little girl is embarrassing, but nothing more.

So how do you make a violation benign? There are few ways.

One way is that you make it distant. If it happens to someone else or happened a long time ago or doesn’t seem like it could possibly be real.

My mother telling me these stories happened a long time ago, so the passing of time makes it benign, especially since I seem to be okay, more or less.

Violations also become benign when you aren’t strongly committed to the violated norm.

“How do you make a violation benign?”

So if you hear about a church recruiting new members by giving away a Hummer SUV, most everybody would think this was out of line, that church shouldn’t have raffles to win converts or new members.

However, in one study, the people that found this benign are people that were less committed to the sanctity of the church. The people that were more committed to the sanctity of the church don’t find it nearly as amusing because it violated their sensibilities too much to be benign.

And a final way to make a violation benign is to have some alternative explanation of the violation so it can be seen as okay in some way. A perfect example of this is tickling, which is really something that is a physical violation and an attack but is also playful and harmless.

If your boyfriend or girlfriend started tickling you, you’d probably find it annoying but amusing. If a stranger came up to you and started tickling you, you’d probably find it terrifying and awful.

The same thing is true if you were accosted by this guy…

If a man got up in your face on the streets of NYC, you might think you were being accosted and get annoyed or even feel afraid, but if you realize it’s supposed to be for fun, then it becomes a game. The meaning of the violation can be explained in some positive way. It is purely benign.

Sometimes humor is right on the line and there is a question about whether something is truly benign. This happens with some pranks. Some pranks are clearly benign.

Harmless, of course, but also not real funny. Here’s a little less benign and more funny:

We think everything’s okay. We assume he didn’t hurt himself, though we’re not 100% sure. But now here’s one that is way less benign and because of that, one that less people will find funny.

It may be benign for the kid, but not for the mom. We know everything will be okay, but we also might worry that this is actually a pretty harmful thing to do to a mom. On YouTube, that video earned 48,000 dislikes, but…it also got over 942,000 likes.

The Benign Violation Theory helps us understand not only why something is funny, but also why it isn’t funny. There are two main reasons why something isn’t funny.

One reason is if something is just benign and there isn’t any violation. Another reason is when something is a malignant violation. In other words, there is nothing okay or acceptable about the situation.

That’s why it’s very rare for people to find Holocaust jokes acceptable. It’s why Gilbert Gottfried got in trouble and lost some paying gigs after he posted some tacky jokes following the Japanese earthquake and flooding a few years back.

But for most other things, the line of what is acceptable varies. Take Your Momma Jokes as an example:

  • Your momma’s so ugly when she tried to enter an ugly contest, they said, “Sorry, no professionals!”
  • Your momma’s so ugly when she went into a Haunted House, she came out with a job application.
  • Your momma’s so ugly her birth certificate is an apology letter from the condom factory.
  • Your momma’s so fat, she got baptized at Sea World.

Most people understand that Your Momma jokes are really not about a person’s real momma, but I have a friend who lives in L.A. and he was at a party a few weeks after his mother had died of cancer.

A drunk guy started making “Your momma” jokes, completely unaware of my friend’s situation.

So my friend did what any reasonable person would do under the circumstances: he knocked the drunk guy out on the front lawn.

For my friend, the jokes were a violation, but they were not benign. To be funny, something has to be both a violation and benign, something that is really hard to pull off.

In one study, the more pain characters in cartoons were depicted as having, the funnier people found them. More pain equals more funny, but not so much that it crosses some imaginary line that different people draw at different places.

“The Benign Violation Theory not only explains why things are funny, but it also explains why things aren’t funny.”

So here’s a really complicated one: Last month, me and two of my friends paid real money to watch Extreme Midget Wrestling. It wasn’t just any old regular midget wrestling. It was Extreme Midget Wrestling.

I know it’s not good to use that word, but that was the actual name of the event. We thought it would be a “cultural experience.” When we got in there, however, it felt kind of awful.

Was it funny or exploitive? Both? The little people seemed to be in on the joke, rather than the joke being on them. Did that make a difference?

It’s something I have debated in my head. (By the way, I went there to interview the participants for a story on this phenomenon, but my interview backed out on me).

The line for humor moves and changes all the time, too. In comedy, timing is everything.

Remember when Hurricane Sandy wiped out the New Jersey shore? If people made a joke in the month right after the hurricane struck, no one found it funny, but if you waited until precisely 36 days afterward, people found it funny.

However, if you waited too long after that, no one found it funny again because it wasn’t fresh in their minds.

Why are things funny? Why do we find things funny? Well, there’s a whole psychology of humor and the Benign Violation Theory explains why things are funny!But the timing of what’s funny and what’s not depends on the event itself and it’s nearly impossible to predict.

More than a year after Paul Walker died in a tragic car accident, every joke about him was cut from Comedy Central’s roast of Justin Bieber. A year later and it was still “too soon.” It was still too much of a violation.

Take 9/11, that horrible day, that almost unspeakable tragedy. Sixteen years after the event, Kumail Nanijani’s character in The Big Sick makes a whopper of a 9/11 joke.

Yet Entertainment Weekly said it was one of the best movie moments of the year and Slate said it was “the best 9/11 joke ever made.” A crack that would have been most unfunny a decade earlier plays big with the perspective of time.

We have to laugh at some point to help us deal with the slings and arrows of life.

One of the worst things you can experience in life is the death of a spouse, yet men whose wives had died and were able to smile and laugh about their marriages six months after the death of their spouses had far few problems with depression and grief in later years, as did those who used humor as a way of coping with the loss.

“We all need to laugh more!”

In another study of Prisoners Of War found that those who best survived their time in captivity relied a lot more on humor as a way of coping. Humor is essential to living life in a tough world.

And it’s vital for healthy relationships, from the first days until the last.

In studies, both men and women considered humor to be the most important of all characteristics when choosing a partner, whether it is for romance or friendship.

Among those who had been happily married for many years, shared laughter was nearly always listed as a primary factor in the success of their relationship.

We all need to laugh more!

Check this out: five-year-olds laugh nearly 8 times an hour on average while the average American adult laughs only 18 times a day. In other words, little kids laugh 10 times more than we do!

They do this even when they are worried about getting their heads knocked off by telephone poles or getting their penises cut off in the supermarket bathroom. We could learn a lot from them.

Click here to read more articles by Dr. Dave Verhaagen!

Dr. Dave Verhaagen
Dave Verhaagen is the author or co-author of eight books, including Therapy with Young Men and Parenting the Millennial Generation. As a licensed psychologist who earned his Ph.D. in psychology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he has served as clinical director for three mental health agencies and is the founder and former CEO of Southeast Psych, a large psychology practice in Charlotte, NC. He is one of fewer than 5% of psychologists in the U.S. to be certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology (ABPP) and he is a Fellow of both The American Board of Clinical Psychology and The American Board of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. His work has been featured several times in USA Today, Newsweek, and dozens of newspapers around the country. He works almost exclusively with young adults (16-29 year olds) in his clinical practice. Dave is a popular speaker at local, state, and national conferences. He has been married to Ellen for 26 years and they have four young adult children: Daniel, Christy, Maddie, and Abbey. Fun facts: He once broke a finger tucking in his shirt and broke another finger making his bed. He worked in radio for seven years on-air. He is a bad magician. He still dresses up each year for Halloween. Do with this information what you will.


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