Art funny v Science funny

My sister and my brother-in-law are locked in a continuous debate about which of the two of them is funnier. My sister maintains that her humour is “art humour” – creative, spontaneous, quick and witty. My brother-in-law is more a science man. He understands how humour works and sets up jokes five lines in advance in normal conversation. They have created an “art funny” and “science funny” dichotomy.

Which made this Wired story about a group of academics studying the nature of humour a pretty interesting read for me – and one that anybody who gets up and does public speaking where they attempt to be funny should take note.

This Venn Diagram could be the secret to understanding what makes funny funny.

There may be many types of humor, maybe as many kinds as there are variations in laughter, guffaws, hoots, and chortles. But [researcher, Peter] McGraw doesn’t think so. He has devised a simple, Grand Unified Theory of humor—in his words, “a parsimonious account of what makes things funny.” McGraw calls it the benign violation theory, and he insists that it can explain the function of every imaginable type of humor. And not just what makes things funny, but why certain things aren’t funny. “My theory also explains nervous laughter, racist or sexist jokes, and toilet humor,” he told his fellow humor researchers.

Coming up with an essential description of comedy isn’t just an intellectual exercise. If the BVT actually is an unerring predictor of what’s funny, it could be invaluable. It could have warned Groupon that its Super Bowl ad making light of Tibetan injustices would bomb. The Love Guru could’ve been axed before production began. Podium banter at the Oscars could be less excruciating. If someone could crack the humor code, they could get very rich. Or at least tenure.

And dare I say there may be less awkward pauses for laughter in sermons (even if I use humour in a sermon I never pause – just because there’s nothing worse than a pause and no laugh (it just beats out a laugh with no pause).

McGraw and Caleb Warren, a doctoral student, presented their elegantly simple formulation in the August 2010 issue of the journal Psychological Science. Their paper, “Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behavior Funny,” cited scores of philosophers, psychologists, and neuroscientists (as well as Mel Brooks and Carol Burnett).

Their theory is that the results of humour – laughter and amusement – come as a result of violations that are simultaneously seen as benign. Examples of “violations” include breaches of personal dignity, linguistic norms, social norms, and even moral norms. These violations must not pose a threat to the audience or their worldview.

I like this little sketch that went with the article too:

What do you think – is there any humour that falls outside of the “benign” category? I guess the outer limits of black humour might. Which may explain why some people don’t find it funny – benign is relative.

3 thoughts on “Art funny v Science funny”

  1. This ignores the role that the supposed response to funniness (laughter) actually plays in the humour value of something. The assumed unidirectional causal relationship has been questioned by a lot of psychological study, and in fact is the reason behind canned laughter on TV shows.

    In the example of sermon humour – I would argue that some jokes live or die by the number of pews that are occupied.

    It is always assumed that responses are just that: responses. But often the supposed response causes the thing that we assume elicits the response. Laugther is one example. Another one that has been studied a lot in psychology is the relationship between fear and its assumed physiological “responses”.

    And then there’s this study, that I’ve always found interesting. They got a bunch of guys in and showed them posters of bikini babes or somesuch, and asked them to rate the girls on attractiveness. They hooked the subjects up with headphones that they were told were playing their own heartbeats. The speed of the heartbeats were in fact randomised for each poster they looked at. Then they analysed the ratings against the heartbeats, and found that when the subjects were hearing faster heartbeats, they rated the girls they were looking at more highly. Suggests that the response-cause relationship was around t’other way than is expected. The results were long-lasting: they followed up with the subjects a year later and they still rated the same girls more highly.

  2. Nathan Campbell

    @Brad – there’s something to that, it also explains why humour is amplified by the number of people you’re with, and the type of people you’re with. Response isn’t completely foreign to the theory though, I think he’s suggesting that pre-response the elements of something likely to evoke a response must be that benign violation – a good comic then reads the potential response into their joke to decide what is benign, and what is a violation.

    The canned laughter thing has a couple of functions though doesn’t it? Like marking a joke for the slower members of the TV audience to they think “what was funny about that”…

    I’d say that response amplifies the humour in a situation rather than determining what is humourous. So it’s not a cause and effect thing, but nor is it a root cause in the same way the benign violation theory tries to identify the fundamental elements of a joke.

    But you do raise the question – if a joke happens in the woods and there is nobody there to hear it, is it really a joke.

    @Andrew – I don’t think it’s as dichotomous as the post suggests, I’m thinking more in terms of defining characteristics than in terms of absolutely unique characteristics. It’s a vibe thing. Think intuitive v taught. Even then the art/science labels break down. Perhaps think gallery/lab.

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