The science of funny

What makes something funny … well, funny? That is what one professor and one writer are working together to figure out. Is there a science to the funny, or is it the gift of gab?

Professor Peter McGraw, who teaches marketing and psychology at the Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Joel Warner, a writer based out of Denver, Co., have the answer. In their soon-to-be-released book, “The Humor Code,” they have come up with a (somewhat exact) scientific explanation for why people laugh.

The book focuses on McGraw’s Benign Violation theory, which basically states that humor occurs “only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is a violation, (2) the situation is benign and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously.”

The theory is being researched at the Humor Research Lab (called HuRL by its employees), and cites work from Caleb Warren and linguist Tom Veatch in its formulation.

“Humor arises when something seems wrong, unsettling or threatening (a kind of violation), but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable or safe,” McGraw said in an article on Fast Company. “A dirty joke trades on moral or social violations, but it’s only going to get a laugh if the person listening is liberated enough to consider risqué subjects okay.”

Warner joined McGraw after learning about HuRL, and since they’ve begun travelling together to test McGraw’s theory, they’ve found that it holds up — particularly because it also tells people why things aren’t funny.

“A joke can fail in one of two ways,” McGraw continued, “It can be too benign, and therefore boring, or it can be too much of a violation, and therefore offensive.”

Do you have what it takes to be funny? Practice makes perfect. A little bit of it is in the timing, the way it is structured and facial expressions, but a lot of it also is through empirical work.

“It might not seem like it, but the best comedians hone their material scientifically, experimenting bit by bit,” Warner said.

To learn more about “The Humor Code,” click here

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