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Funny stuff: Who should get credit for unlocking secrets of laughter with benign violation theory?

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As noted in last week's cover story, "The Nutty Professor," CU prof Peter McGraw has come up with what he sees as a new theory of humor -- the benign violation theory -- and some scholars think it's a major step forward in the field. Others, however, aren't so convinced, because they believe they came up with the theory first.

Take a letter we received this week in response to the story, from Jason Preston, a self-described autodidact in Junction City, Kansas. "I was amazed to see that someone else recently (Prof. Peter McGraw) had hit upon precisely the theory of laughter I laid out two years ago," wrote Preston. "Do I get a blurb in your paper for having thought of the same notion first? Does the other theorist meet up with me to discuss refinements to the theory? Or am I disregarded as a crackpot because I didn't publish as a PhD in a peer-reviewed paper?"

Consider this your official blurb, Preston. His concept, called the stress-adaptive model of humor, was published on his website in 2008 -- and it does bear many similarities to McGraw's work. According to Preston's wide-ranging and colorfully illustrated entry, "humor is the interior primate response to a stimulus first seen as a potential threat, then determined to be non-threatening, while laughter is a method of communicating the humor response in order to spread its effects to peers."

McGraw, on the other hand, describes humor as something that occurs when someone perceives a situation as a violation and simultaneously realizes that the situation is also benign. He also believes laughter is used to communicate that the violation is benign.

So should McGraw abdicate is "Nutty Professor" title to Preston? As McGraw points out in an e-mail, the question raises tricky issues about peer-reviewed and non-peer-reviewed theories and research. "The Internet age has made this kind of thing a little problematic from an academic standpoint, and I am still trying to figure out how to deal with it in my own writing," he writes.

Preston actually reached out to McGraw in the past, reports the CU professor, and it wasn't the first time someone has come to him with examples of web-based humor theories that are similar to his work. But while McGraw acknowledges his research may cover some of the same territory as these other theories, he says most peer-reviewed journals will only allow citations to peer-reviewed ideas, and not to blog entries or other web publications.

For this reason, McGraw heavily references and acknowledges similar work completed by Stanford student Thomas Veatch in 1998, since it was published in a peer-reviewed academic journal. That's how academic scholarship works: Each peer-reviewed study or theory builds on its predecessors, and sooner or later some other academic will come up with a more refined humor theory that's indebted to and acknowledges McGraw's work.

Still, that leaves out the wide, woolly world of non-academic insight -- and lots of the best ideas come from non-credentialed nobodies. Plus, if academics want to use humor theory productively -- i.e., coming up with hilarious jokes -- they're going to have to climb down from their ivory towers and get their comedic hands dirty.

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