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Louis C.K. appears onstage at the The Comedy Awards presented by Comedy Central in New York, Saturday, March 26, 2011. (Charles Sykes/ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Louis C.K. appears onstage at the The Comedy Awards presented by Comedy Central in New York, Saturday, March 26, 2011. (Charles Sykes/ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Why do jokes sometimes fall flat? Add to ...

Laughter may be the best medicine. But how do you administer it?

Scientists have long recognized the wide-ranging health benefits of humour, from reducing stress and improving morale to even decreasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. Yet pinpointing what actually makes things funny has been elusive thus far.

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At the University of Colorado, Boulder, marketing and psychology professor Peter McGraw has been mulling over this puzzle since 2008 and at last, he and his fellow researchers have put a finger on an answer: Humour equals tragedy plus time.

The researchers identified what most comedians understand intuitively; there is a “sweet spot” for comedy that depends on psychological distance. Hilarity falls between making a wisecrack too hastily after a tragedy occurs, and too late when an event is no longer joke-worthy. If you’ve ever had a joke fall flat because it was too soon, hit too close to home, or simply because “you had to be there” to understand the punchline, McGraw’s theory, which he calls the benign violation theory, helps explain why.

In a recent study published in the journal Psychological Science, McGraw and his fellow researchers explain the theory is based on the notion that humour depends on some kind of violation, whether it is a disruption of your expectations, a physical threat or a breach of social norms.

For something to be funny, “there needs to be something wrong,” McGraw says, noting that literary legend Mark Twain, explained the phenomenon best when he said the secret source of humour is not joy, but sorrow. “That’s what’s sort of the counterintuitive part of humour,” McGraw says. “It’s generally this good, beneficial thing, but it has its roots in potentially negative experiences.”

McGraw suggests there is a psychological process that may explain why comedy requires tragedy. By their very nature, violations arouse negative emotions. But when a violation is made acceptable or benign – for example, when a comedian like Russell Peters pokes fun of racial stereotypes or when Louis C.K. goes on comedic tirades about parenting taboos – the stimulus suddenly changes from being negatively arousing to positively arousing. That switch is enjoyable, McGraw says. “We can delight in that.”

In the study, McGraw and his team discovered that severe violations are funniest when they are temporally, socially or spatially distant, whereas mild violations are funniest when they are psychologically close. For example, a joke about a relatively severe violation such as the photos of the Duchess of Cambridge’s bare breasts would be far better received by those who don’t personally know her than by members of the Royal Family. Yet the Duchess herself may eventually laugh about it when enough time has passed.

On the other hand, a minor mishap like slipping on a banana peel is only funny immediately – and it is likely to elicit maximum chuckles if it happens to you or to someone you know. Over time, such mishaps lose their humour.

These findings were consistent throughout a series of experiments, which asked university students to rate the funny factor of various situations. In one experiment, for instance, participants almost unanimously felt that a severe violation like getting hit by a car would be more humourous if it occurred five years ago than if it happened yesterday. In another experiment, participants felt it would be funnier if a stranger accidentally wound up donating nearly $2,000 to charity than if the same thing happened to a friend.

Comedian Jessica Holmes, who has performed with the Second City and the Royal Canadian Air Farce, concurs with the study’s results. Holmes notes that an old South Park episode offers a good example of how the research plays out beyond the science lab. “The whole episode was them saying constantly, ‘Is it okay to laugh about AIDS yet?’” she laughs.

Of course, instead of using formulae and graphs to calculate the funniness of her jokes, Holmes’s process is more organic. She tries to imagine herself delivering them before performing.

“If I can picture the audience laughing at it, 90 per cent of the time they do laugh at it. And if I can’t picture them laughing, I don’t use the joke at all,” she says.

Gags and giggles aside, there is a serious side to understanding what makes things funny. McGraw says the benign violation theory may help explain why humour helps people cope with pain, stress and adversity. Comedy allows people to make light of the cause of their woes, sapping it of its strength. “If you can laugh about it, how bad can it really be?” he says. “You take the violations in the world and you make them benign, you make them okay...[and] they won’t affect you as negatively.”

 

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