Thanks to the BVT, McGraw now looks at the world in a new way. These days, after he hears a funny story, he'll usually exclaim, "Now, that's a benign violation!"

*******

McGraw doesn't want to just talk about the BVT; he wants to prove the theory. So he and Warren launched a new research team at CU funded by a small grant from the Marketing Science Institute, plus contributions from McGraw's salary: The Humor Research Lab, or HuRL.

Professor Peter McGraw may not be a standup comic, but he's a renowned consumer psychologist, seriously researching funny.
Mark Manger
Professor Peter McGraw may not be a standup comic, but he's a renowned consumer psychologist, seriously researching funny.
Ah, the humanity! Peter McGraw and HURL, his research lab, have been studying the meaning of Hot Tub Time Machine.
Mark Manger
Ah, the humanity! Peter McGraw and HURL, his research lab, have been studying the meaning of Hot Tub Time Machine.

HuRL's been running tests like the Hot Tub Time Machine experiment to put the BVT through its paces. Other projects have involved asking participants to read about Keith Richards snorting his father's ashes, and subjecting them to a story about a man rubbing his bare genitals against a purring kitten. Next up? Using some of Colorado's abundant medical marijuana patients to test the age-old notion that stoners laugh at everything.

Many of HuRL's findings are convincing, McGraw says. They've discovered that they can use the concept of the BVT to make things more or less funny, for instance: Increasing the psychological distance between an extreme violation and the person who's supposed to get the joke makes it more more benign and funnier. Or, as Mel Brooks put it, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

In unrelated research, a CU colleague of McGraw's had found that he could make test subjects feel less attached to a story he told them by first having them plot points on a two-dimensional graph that were far apart from one another. McGraw wondered if the same technique would work for humor, so he had participants plot various points on a graph before reading about the man having sex with a dead chicken. Sure enough, those who'd plotted points that were far apart on the graph were significantly more amused.

"It clearly worked," says McGraw. "It had this huge effect. I was thrilled."

The Hot Tub Time Machine experiment is an expansion of this research. Participants have been watching the clip while sitting at different places in the room, and McGraw is hoping to prove that participants who watch the dog-butt and pee-spray jokes 25 feet from the screen consider them more benign and funnier than people watching from five feet away.

Such findings could be lucrative for movie-theater companies, in just one of many practical applications McGraw sees for the BVT. Marketing provides other opportunities: HuRL has been actively testing how benign violations in advertisements can backfire. In one experiment, participants found a mock lime soda advertisement featuring a lime peeing into a glass of cola funny, but they weren't too thrilled about drinking the final product. Now HuRL has partnered with mShopper, a local cell-phone-based shopping service, to see if funny text-messaging ads developed by the researchers make people more likely to buy products through the service. One message they're hoping to try out: "We're cheap, quick and easy — and disease-free."

As HuRL develops, McGraw's even thinking of asking famous comedians if they'd like to help fund the research in order to improve their acts.

But the BVT doesn't just have the potential to help big business and big comics; it also has big implications for the research community. "I absolutely consider it significant; it furthers the field," says Don Nilsen, co-founder of the International Society for Humor Studies and co-author of the Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Humor. "I don't think there are any examples of humor that don't fit this."

But Elliot Oring, ISHS's current president, isn't convinced. "As a contribution to the discussion, I think it's fine," he says. "But as far as revolutionizing humor, I don't think so. All he seems to be doing is changing terminology."

Oring thinks the BVT isn't all that different from a concept put forward by Scottish philosopher James Beattie in 1778: "Laughter arises from the view of two or more inconsistent, unsuitable or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage." Another version of this idea, he says, is the "appropriate incongruity" theory of humor — a term coined in 1973 by Oring himself.

"To talk about benign violations, I think, is really, really good terminology," counters Nilson. Still, he's not sure it will revolutionize humor, because, like laughter itself, the BVT is completely subjective. "All of it is about one's perception of a joke," he explains. "You still can't say whether a joke is definitely funny or not, because whether it's a violation and whether it's benign is determined by age, gender, politics and many other things."

(At McGraw's TEDxBoulder talk, all his jokes elicit big laughs from the crowd — until he makes a quip about pedophiles and gets some groans. That line might go over with the students in his classroom, but there are too many concerned parents in this audience to make pedophilia feel benign.)

Even with the BVT, McGraw knows that making things funny isn't easy. If anything, his research has made him appreciate just how difficult it is to pull off good jokes, since they require just the right mix of pleasure and pain.

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