ComicGeekeryPerformance ArtPhilosophyScienceSkepticism

Your grand-unified-theory-of-humor is a joke.

It is a delight for any artist to have critics pick apart not just their artwork, but their genre of art itself. Fortunately for comedians like myself, humour has repeatedly avoided the cocked-head, beardy think-clunking attention of the bespectacled, cardigan scratching underwhelming academics. Mainly because comedy isn’t considered proper art. Comedy is like porn, sure it can make you think, but it really is only after one reaction. And no one wants to hang their serious academic career on that rather dirty hook.

However, there are some who manage to carve out an interesting niche (chaps like Oliver Double). And there are others, who grab the wrong end of the stick and swing it around their head in gay abandon singing, “Look at me look at me, I did a head thunk! All on my own!”

In other words this article, got my goat.

The article by Joel Warner doesn’t spare Peter McGraw’s ego. The ambition of Peter is to explain how and why all jokes work, with one simple theory.

The theory he lays out: “Laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign.” That is, they perceive a violation—”of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bedpan, strange behaviors), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviors)”—while simultaneously recognizing that the violation doesn’t pose a threat to them or their worldview.

First of all, the idea of ‘benign’ violation isn’t my experience of comedy. Many people don’t find Doug Stanhope, or Jim Jeffries funny. Mr Jeffries certainly goes against every ounce of feminist solidarity in my body. Yet man, the boy is funny. Doug Stanhope does routines about abortion, Sarah Palin’s genitals (and her disabled child), child porn… you name it, he’s done it.

Doug Stanhope

These subjects are funny not because they are couched in irony. Reginald D Hunter did a show called White Woman at the Edinburgh fringe in 2003, where he really explored the lines between flirtation, sex, and rape. He reported things I felt were morally wrong. I was genuinely horrified, offended and laughing my arse off.

It doesn’t take a comedian to work out that in order to make Peter McGraw’s theory work (that jokes are funny because benign violation), it needs to be retrofitted to whatever joke you can think of. And while it sort of can, (though you need to stretch the what you think ‘benign’ and ‘violation’ mean), it isn’t exactly predictive. You can’t take this theory and then write a funny joke based on it, you need to come up with a joke and see how it fits the theory.

Take, ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ ‘To get to the other side’. Now this joke works because of false expectations, you are expecting there to be a funny reason why a chicken would cross the road, otherwise why would the joke teller bring it up? Or maybe you are expecting a zen like philosophy, a one hand clapping parable. Either way, the punchline undermines your expectations, it is a ‘rug pull’ joke. So erm… it violates your expectations but this violation is benign because at worse it suggests your expectations are less logical than that of a chicken? The retrofitted theory is ugly and clunky.

More importantly: it wont tell you why a joke isn’t funny.

Do a run at any comedy festival. In an hour show you’ll have some bankers – jokes where the payoffs are huge, and you can rely on a big laugh. But the majority of any comedy show is a range of different stories and gags that are going to go down differently every night. Some will be huge most nights, but will fall flat on others. Likewise some which might get a titter most nights will occasionally blow the doors off. In my routine these are cheeky puns and silly details I slip in. Most often these get groans, which I work with, but sometimes they make the difference between a very good gig, and a storming gig.

McGraw’s theory leaves out artists. You could write the ten best jokes in the world, but without the craft, you’ll struggle to get a crowd of disgruntled drunks to crack a smile.

It isn’t just the comedian either. If you’ve ever tried to do a gig in a half-empty room, or outdoors or during the daytime, you’ll know that despite the comedian and the material being the same, the laughter response will be different.

Back in 2002, Alex Horne did a show called Making Fish Laugh where he took report from the first ever International Conference on Humour and Laughter (Cardiff, 1976) and repeated the experiments onstage. These included things like the distance between audience members and the temperature of the room.

Comedy is grander than any one theory. Drama’s sordid little cousin is complex. What makes something funny is in the laugh of the beholder.

In all seriousness, I do welcome research into my profession. However, like a physicist trapped in the pub by a moron who burps ‘einstein is wrong’ because their gut says so, I am all too willing to shut the door on half-arsed thinkers like Peter McGraw.


Iszi Lawrence is an English comedian and paid doodler. Iszi helps run skeptics in the pub Oxford and performs throughout Europe. Listen to her free weekly podcast She has up to ten toes at any one time.

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  1. I read an article about the theory of laughter in an issue of Reader’s Digest from circa 1942 (the *issue* is old, not me!). From memory, it concluded that the joke was the abrupt departing from a preconceived logical conclusion (sort of the BV mentioned). Of course, horror and many ugly stories fall in this very same definition but, here comes “my” theory, it all lies in the narrative – the way you build the story (preferred order of ideas, selected words, body communication, etc…). So people becomes receptive, tolerant and even willing for the intellectual fraud, much like most movies. As of the rest of the story. there’s an old joke:

    An out of town man walks into a bar and asks for a drink. Then, one of the patrons says “12” out loud and everybody explodes in laughter. Then, after a few moments, another spouts “23” and more laughter. The outsider asks the bartender what’s it all about, to which he explains that this is such a small town that everybody knows all of the jokes already, so they numbered every one of them, so they can tell the joke without having to go through the whole story. “Oh, please, can I try” says the man. “Sure!”. Then he cleans his throat and says “7”, but the people look barely amused. Then he says “18”, but nothing. Worried, our man turns to the bartender to ask what is going on, to which he gravely replies “Well, I think you lack force in the punch line”.

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