Scientists have long understood that farts are hilarious. What's less understood, however, is why. In all seriousness, though, actual scientists have been trying to theoretically understand humor since the time of Aristotle without much success -- until University of Colorado Boulder professor Pete McGraw came around with a pretty good theory, documented by Westword scribe Joel Warner in his 2010 cover story "The Nutty Professor." It wasn't much long later that Warner and McGraw ran off together like a couple of gay lovers or something to work on a book together -- which is pretty much the same thing as being gay lovers. And Friday night, the prodigal gay sons returned to the Denver Art Museum to explain what they've been doing all this time.
Their talk was part of the DAM's Untitled series, which brings a bunch of adult-ish activities centered on a theme to the museum on the last Friday of each month; May's edition was about humor, of course. The centerpiece: McGraw's "Benign Violation Theory," which basically states that humor constitutes a kind of personal violation, but one that's essentially non-threatening. Or, as McGraw put it, "Violations create negative emotions; they trigger an emotional arousal. If you can then take that violation and see how the situation is benign, then the negative arousal flips to a positive one, and you laugh. The roots of humor are rough play. If there is no threat, then there is no humor. You can't tickle yourself."
Beg to differ, McGraw: I tickle myself all the time, and it is hilarious.
That obvious oversight notwithstanding, though, for more than a year now Warner and McGraw have been trying to prove and strengthen the theory, and to that end, they've run a number of experiments. So elsewhere at Untitled, they were running a faux comedy club and playing with variables in the space, trying to understand what contributes positively or negatively to what comedians call "a good room."
Less scientifically, they also took an hour to get on stage themselves and chat with local comic Ben Roy about the specifics of what they're doing. The end results will be in their book (which they're tentatively calling The Humor Code), but their talk offered a fascinating preview of what they've been working on -- so at the risk of ruining it for everybody, here's a little of what they've come up with so far:
The Manhole One of the big questions is: What's the right amount of violation? McGraw and Warner have been studying that by essentially just asking people pointed questions about potentially funny situations; for example, a guy falling down a manhole. "We asked people if they would find their friend falling down a manhole funny, and most people said no," said McGraw. "Interestingly, though, if the person falling down a manhole was a stranger, people found that much funnier. So what about a more benign situation like stumbling on a curb? If a stranger stumbles, we found, people don't really find that funny -- but if a friend stumbles, people find that funny. So there's this component of psychological distance."
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The Silverman Strategy "Sarah Silverman basically commits a hate crime every time she's onstage," McGraw joked. "Her humor is extremely violating, but it's delivered with this cute, innocent sort of schtick, and so she transforms the violation into something benign and diffuses the threat. On the other side of that spectrum, you've got what we call the 'Seinfeld Strategy,' where Jerry Seinfeld is pointing out the violation in the benign." Although he referred often to comedians, McGraw took pains to point out that the humor of comedians just offers a convenient mode of observation. "Stand-up is such a small part of humor," he noted.
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The Mad Men Experiement In an effort to understand the role of drunkenness in humor, Warner and McGraw went to Madison Avenue and took a bunch of very funny ad copywriters out to get hammered, and had them see how funny they could be with the Benign Violation Theory Venn Diagram template (see the photo at the top) while sober, and then while mildly drunk and then at three sheets. A sample of what they came up with is below:
They asked the copywriters to rate on a scale how funny they thought their shit was, and later asked a sample of normal folks to rate those same diagrams in terms of funniness versus offensiveness. Here's what they found: at about five drinks, the copywriters themselves thought their ideas were exponentially more hilarious, while normal people found the same work more offensive and less hilarious. Conclusion: the appreciation for the benign and the simultaneous capacity for violation concurrently rise and fall with intake of booze, or: subtlety is lost on drunks. Oh, thanks a lot for figuring that one out, McGraw.