I’ve always wanted to write humor. In fact, I’ve written several partial comic novels and a few completed short comedies. Comedy doesn’t come naturally to me in the least. As a matter of fact, it’s something I analyze a little too much, which probably means I’ll never be a stand-up comedian. But then, it’s unlikely I’d ever be a stand-up anything–except maybe a stand-up citizen (oops, that might be a Malaprop). Because of my natural tendency to analyze humor, I found this wired.com article both enlightening and funny: One Professor’s Attempt to Explain Every Joke Ever. According to the article, psychology and marketing professor Peter McGraw has developed a simple theory to explain what makes jokes funny–benign violation. It’s a simplistic way of looking at humor, yet it explains why audiences find pies in the face, slipping on banana peels, and some “acceptable” racist or sexist jokes amusing. Actual violation hasn’t yet occurred; nobody has actually harmed the guy who got a pie in the face; nobody has actually beaten the tar out of a dumb blond or a Polack. What has occurred is a nonviolent violation of the norm, or a departure of what we expect because of our moral and rational views of the world.
I like clean, simple explanations. I long for them because they reduce the complexity of the world into tag lines, very much like jokes do. Clean explanations and punchlines are beautiful ways of looking at the world, and I lack the natural ability to do either. Simple ideas explain so much. For example, I now understand why my comedy critique partner doesn’t laugh at most of what I write. My humor is almost always based off of irony. From my perspective, ironies abound in the world, and I layer them on one by one when I’m attempting to write comedy. I find them funny–why don’t others? Why did my critique partner sit deadpan reading one of my comic novels, until he arrived at a scene in which the male protagonist lures the neighbor’s cat to his house w/ catnip? I didn’t find that scene funny. I used it only to show the lengths this character would go to to get his way. Why did my critique partner nearly fall off his chair? Ah, yes–the simple explanation–benign violation. Being the neighborhood kitty drug-pusher is a moral violation of the benign sort. If my protagonist had lured a little boy to his house w/ a spliff, the violation would no longer have fallen into the benign category.
However, the professor’s explanation doesn’t explain why a benign violation to one person might be a malicious violation to another. As a case in point, I don’t find blond jokes amusing. I find them denigrating, most likely because I’m a blond female who’s always lacked self-confidence. I grew up being called a dumb blond, and a part of me still believes it. You could tell me to lighten up, to laugh at life a little more. But it’s much harder to force laughter when the joke’s on me. In that sense, the theory changes into one of jokes and pranks and slapstick are funny because they’re not violating me. I’m not the one hurting. I’m not the one w/ pie in my face.
Going back to my comedy critique partner (yes, I do have one!), I understand now why he didn’t find my irony amusing. What I don’t understand is why some people laugh at my humor and others don’t. With beta readers, I’ve found it to be a fifty-fifty proposition. About half of my readers/friends/family will laugh, and the other half won’t get it. How does that fit into the benign violation theory? Does irony upset some people’s expected outcomes, while others expect the unexpected?
What do you think of the idea that comedy is funny because it violates social norms in benign ways? What do you find funny? Oh, wait, don’t tell me you laugh at blond jokes! Do you? Hit me with your best shot, then. I dare you.