Humor Code: Flaws in A Scientific Approach to Comedy

I first came across the Humor Code when doing some research on women in comedy.  The Humor Code is a branded name for the Humor Research Lab at UC Boulder, which attempts to dissect comedy to understand why we laugh as humans.  They were recently featured in the Bridgetown Comedy Festival, where their data was hilariously shoved back in their face by Myq Kaplan, Pete Holmes, and Mary Mack.

As a professional scientist and amateur comedian, I find their research very interesting, albeit very flawed.  The basis of their theory of comedy is that all humor derives from the Benign Violation Theory (scientific paper on BVT is here).  Basically, the crux of their theory is this Venn Diagram:

From Humor Code

What makes us laugh is the nexus of something that is a violation and something that is considered benign.  Some examples include:

from Humor Code

So, the circle on the left is a benign concept, while the circle on the right is some type of violation.  Another example would be a comedian telling a pun to an audience can elicit 1 of 2 responses: a laugh or a groan.  A pun is a violation of English language structure (replacing an expected word with an unexpected word).  If the audience laughs at the pun, they consider this violation to be sufficiently benign to merit humor recognition. If they groan, that means that this violation is not benign, and should not be rewarded with laughter.

So, how does a violation become benign? One of three ways (from McGraw’s paper):

  1. A salient norm suggests that something is wrong but another salient norm suggests that it is acceptable
  2. One is only weakly committed to the violated norm
  3. The violation is psychologically distant

Basically, if societal norms say the violation is no big deal or you don’t really consider the violation a violation, then the violation is considered a “benign violation”.  The problem with this definition of humor is that something has to be considered an a priori violation before an individual can consider it to be benign.  So, what is a violation? There’s nothing that offends everyone (or will offend everyone).  While some people are offended by Holocaust jokes, there are people who actually committed the Holocaust.  So, the Holocaust is not a universal a priori violation.

According to Dr. McGraw himself, you have to put some value into something to make it a violation.  However, this is at the expense of calling something “benign”.  So, rather than being two distinct circles in a Venn Diagram, I think you have to look at it as a spectrum:

People who laugh probably respond to stimuli on the “benign” half of the spectrum rather than the violation half.  If we can step back a bit, it seems pretty obvious that people laugh at things that are “benign”.  So, perhaps this isn’t a good theory to define what is funny.

While I admire the efforts to try to come up with a grand unified theory of comedy, I think the Benign Violation Theory is not it, for the following reasons:

  1. Nothing is an a priori violation or a priori benign.  All of these are value judgements, and often times the two concepts are mutually exclusive.  Therefore, “benign violation” is a paradox.
  2. One could argue that anything is a “violation” or “benign”, because these definitions are value judgements, rather than absolute concepts.  Benign violation is an a posteriori definition, trying to explain humor by what is funny. It’s like saying we have to eat by putting things in our mouth, we eat food to keep us alive, so “food” is anything that people put in their mouths (this joke writes itself).

While I do admire what McGraw is trying to do, I think a lot of his work regarding BVT is too vague to be of any interest or use to understanding what makes us laugh.  While I am a neophyte in the comedy research world, I’ll throw out my own theory of comedy:

People laugh when expectations are positively deviated.

This is bit more general of a theory, perhaps only a modest difference from BVT, but I think an important one.  While BVT implies there are two fields of perspective (“violation” and “benign”), and humor is the nexus of the two, my theory proposes that audiences have an expectation, and when a performer deviates from that expectation in a way that the audience views as favorable (or “benign”), humor is elicited.

Ok, it’s basically the BVT, but the emphasis is more on a priori knowledge, such as:

  1. Audiences have expectations that include wanting to laugh and hearing proper English language construction (among other things).
  2. A comedian’s purpose is to deviate from those expectations favorably.
  3. Favorability towards comedic deviation is determined by various variables (e.g. audience mood, socio-economic status, environment of performance, comedian delivery style).

What we really need to define is “comedic favorability” rather than solving the insolvable “benign violation” paradox.  I believe the expectations theory is a modest but important improvement of the BV theory, albeit just a regurgitation of the incongruity theory.  Anyway, here’s an example of my theory in action:


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