As described in the cover story "The Nutty Professor," Boulder professor Peter McGraw, with the help of his Humor Research Lab (HuRL), has come up with a universal theory of comedy they call the Benign Violation Theory (BVT). Last week, McGraw and theory co-creator Caleb Warren showed off the BVT at the International Humor Conference in Boston, an annual gathering of the world's top comedy researchers. To put it in comedy terms, the two didn't bomb, but neither did they kill.
The International Society for Humor Studies (ISHS) has been hosting the International Humor Conference for decades as a gathering place for humor scholars ranging from philosophers to neuroscientists to linguistics experts. While the conferences have covered some pretty fascinating subjects -- from the diagnosis of gelotophobia, the fear of being laughed at, to the challenge of getting computers to understand elephant jokes -- attendees still haven't been able to agree on what, exactly, makes things funny. That was something McGraw was hoping to change.
McGraw began his presentation on the BVT with a strong set-up (apparently he's learned a thing or two about stagecraft since he bombed trying to do stand-up at the Squire last fall). He told the audience about an offensive T-shirt party he recently hosted at his Boulder home, where most offensive shirt of all was emblazoned with the line, "Pray for Japan... but remember Pearl Harbor." To that, several conference attendees cracked up -- but why would they laugh at something so downright offensive? According to the BVT, explained McGraw, it's because humor only occurs when someone perceives something to be a violation while simultaneously realizing it's benign. Making a crack about the recent devastation in Japan is clearly a violation, and only those with enough distance from it (or depraved enough) would consider that violation benign and therefore funny.
Some ISHS members were clearly impressed with the BVT. Take New Yorker Cartoon Editor Bob Mankoff, an accomplished humor scholar in his own right: He's so confident in McGraw's work that he's offering up thousands of entries in his magazine's cartoon caption contest that HuRL researchers will get to parse every which way.
Then again, many longtime humor researchers were not convinced. That included Victor Raskin, founder of the academic journal Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, who noted in a Wired magazine story on the subject, "What McGraw has come up with is flawed and bullshit -- what kind of a theory is that?" Raskin apparently isn't too thrilled with McGraw throwing his weight around the ISHS, either. As he grumbled, "He is not a humor researcher; he has no status."
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Does that mean McGraw's theory is no better than a bad joke? Not necessarily. After all, the diversity of the academic disciplines involved in the conference means that attendees don't share the same terminology or academic standards -- so it's nearly impossible for them to come to consensus as to which humor theory should come out on top.
And it's not just a definition of humor that ISHS members can't agree on. At one point at the conference, Raskin took the podium to declare that humor researchers have long exaggerated their self-importance, and that it's time to determine once and for all "whether humor actually has any impact in society."
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In response, Mankoff took the stage and quipped to the audience, "Regarding Victor's comment that humor doesn't have any impact: I agree, except for my own."
While McGraw and Warren might not have won over the conference with their humor theory, they did make waves for coming up with what may have been the event's most shocking joke, which Warren told during the conference's annual joke-telling contest, held one night at the university's student union. After his colleagues had offered up their selections of witty yet relatively restrained zingers, Warren unleashed a joke that involved a donkey, a dead grandmother and a bit of incest in three tidy lines.
A handful in the audience cracked up, and a laughter yoga expert was spotted rolling on the floor. The majority, however, were not amused. For them, according to the BVT, the violation was far from benign.
More from our Follow That Story Archive: "FunnyPoliceReports.com: Humor professor Peter McGraw gets into the online meme game."