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"What a lot of the major humor theories do is suggest there are different types of humor," says McGraw. "I just don't believe that."
There had to be a better answer. He found it one day by doing a Google search for "humor theory."
One Saturday evening in August, 1,400 people gather in Chautauqua Auditorium for TEDxBoulder, a conference highlighting cutting-edge ideas. As the sold-out audience watches in rapt silence, some of the most innovative thinkers around attempt to blow their collective minds. A tech CEO illustrates how he plans to put billions to work in Third World countries via cell-phone text messages. A bald-headed monk describes what it was like to spend six silent years in a cave in Burma. A renegade astrophysicist details a thrillingly incomprehensible new theory of the universe.
And Peter McGraw, dressed in his signature sweater vest, takes the stage to tell everybody why they find things funny.
He begins with a request: "In a few moments, I am going to ask you to stand up, turn to someone you don't know, and begin tickling that person."
As the crowd chuckles uncomfortably, McGraw says that he and his students think they've cracked the code as to why everyone's laughing.
The answer is something he calls the Benign Violation Theory, or the BVT.
The BVT arose from that fateful Google search two years ago. The second search result led to a bare-bones website featuring an HTML version of "A Theory of Humor," a paper in the May 1998 issue of HUMOR: The International Journal of Humor Research, by a Stanford linguistics student named Thomas Veatch.
Veatch seems to have disappeared (calls to several phone numbers listed under his name aren't returned, and online references suggest he's become a plumber), but his hypothesis stuck with McGraw. According to Veatch, humor arose when a person viewed something as being a violation of his or her values, as well as being "normal."
To McGraw, Veatch's theory appeared to be more accurate than all the others he'd studied, although it still had flaws. When Caleb Warren, a doctoral student working with McGraw, illustrated the theory with a made-up story about a man having sex with a dead chicken and then eating it, department head Lichtenstein quickly summed up the problem.
That situation may be funny, he said, but nothing about it is normal.
So Warren came up with new terminology that they thought improved upon Veatch's work. According to this amended theory, humor only occurs when someone perceives a situation as a violation and simultaneously realizes that the situation is also benign. Under this, the dead-chicken-sex story makes sense: While the violation it describes may not be normal, many people would consider it benign and therefore funny because they realize no actual chickens were harmed in the making of the joke.
Or take his tickle request, McGraw suggests to the TEDxBoulder audience, admitting that he's not going to make them do it. Asking them to touch a stranger was clearly a violation, but he made the situation benign by warning them that it was going to happen rather than by demanding that they do it on the spot.
Every kind of humor McGraw and Warren could think of fit into the BVT. Slapstick worked: Falling down the stairs, a physical violation, is only funny if nobody's actually hurt. 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 such as sex benign. Puns can be seen as violations of linguistic norms, though only cerebral types and grammarians care enough about the violation to chuckle.
Even tickling can be explained by the BVT, since it involves somebody violating someone else's physical space in a benign way. People can't tickle themselves, McGraw points out, because it isn't a violation. Nor will most people laugh if a creepy stranger tries to tickle them, since nothing about that is benign.
McGraw believes the BVT may even help explain why, biologically, humans evolved with the ability to laugh. It is clearly a beneficial trait to be able to correctly perceive when a violation is benign and communicate that to others via laughter, he points out. Early humans who were afraid of every apparent violation, real or not, weren't going to last long — nor were those who took one look at a woolly mammoth charging their way and did nothing but bust a gut.
Although the BVT hasn't made McGraw any funnier himself — "I guess some of it is, I'm satisfied with my level of funniness, so I am not aspiring to greater levels," he says — those who'd like to improve their shtick should find it handy. As he explains to the TEDxBoulder audience, people can make upsetting concepts more amusing by making them seem more benign. He calls this the Sarah Silverman Strategy, after the comedian who gets away with jokes on abortion and AIDs because the way she tells them is so darn cute. On the flip side, benign, everyday occurrences can be made hilarious by exposing how they actually violate common sense. McGraw calls this the Seinfeld Strategy.