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.

Tractor joke redux

I posted the all time best ever joke in the world here some time ago. We’re talking June 2006.

Today I got a comment on that post from someone I don’t know rewriting the tractor joke to make it longer and slightly more awesome.

Kudos to you Michael Edwards.

“Ok so there was this man who was fascinated by tractors he liked tractors so much he changed his name to tractor. He brought his own land and called it tractor and then changed his house to tractor and his road to tractor so his address was tractor, tractor, tractor, and tractor. He even reshaped his own to a tractor design he woke up one day in his tractor shaped bed and wearing his tractor print pyjamas and went down his stairs which had tractor carpet on and then he sat down on his tractor shaped chair at his tractor shaped table eating his tractor shaped toast reading the tractor times. When he read in the tractor times that there was a tractor convention in the local fields near his house in tractor. He was so excited he changed from his tractor pyjamas to his tractor outfit and put on his tractor shoes. He left his tractor house in tractor, tractor and got onto his tractor he had lots of tractors almost every tractor he could find… when he got to the tractor convention he saw the most amazing tractor. He thought it was the best. No he knew it was the best tractor he had ever seen… he went up to the guy who owned it and said. “Excuse me How much is your tractor?”… The guy who owned it thought “hmm I could get a lot of money for this” so he said, ” how much are you willing to pay?” now Tractor being the joker he is said “will a tenner cover it?”, the man who owned the tractor didn’t find this very funny, he thought he was insulting his tractor so he punched him and knocked out Tractor for a few hours. When he woke up he realised he was in a tractor convention and without knowing what had happened he saw this most amazing tractor and asked the guy how much he would sell it for so the owner thought “hmm I could make some money here” so he says, how much are you willing to pay. So Tractor being the joker that he is and not knowing what had happened previously said “will a tenner cover it?” so the man who owned it was very angry he thought he was insulting his tractor, so he hit him hard on the nose and he was knocked out. He woke up the next day and had no idea what had happened but realise he was in a tractor convention and he saw best tractor he had ever seen… he went up to the guy who owned it and said. “Excuse me How much is your tractor?”… The guy who owned it thought “hmm I could get a lot of money for this if he jokes again I will kill him, so he says “how much are you willing to pay for it” so Tractor being the joker that he is and not knowing what had happened previously said “will a tenner cover it? The man was Furious, he punched Tractor so hard he was out cold for a week… when he woke up he hadn’t remembered a thing the convention had gone and all he knew was that he didn’t like tractors anymore. So he changed everything back so he lived in an ordinary house number in an ordinary road in an ordinary town with an ordinary name. He woke up and got out of his ordinary bed in his ordinary pyjamas and wearing his ordinary slippers he goes down his ordinary stairs to his ordinary table eating his ordinary toast reading his ordinary newspaper. And he is very bored so he decides to go to an ordinary pub to order an ordinary beer. He goes into a pub and it is so Smokey he can’t even see his hand In front of his face so he leaves and goes out to find another pub buy he cant find one so he decides the last pub would have to do… he goes into the pub and breathes in all the smoke and breathes it out the door… the barman goes up to him and says, “how did you do that? I’ve been trying to get rid of that smoke for weeks”. The ordinary man says “oh That’s easy I’m an Extractor Fan!”

Humour me

It seems the rise of the individual’s participation in what can loosely labelled the new media has been coupled with the rise of the humourless new media critic – incapable of reading between the lines and willing to take offence on behalf of those wronged in an attempt at comedy or satire. I’m not sure where these people were before – but looking through the news in recent weeks I have to wonder – where did the great Australian ability to laugh at oneself or the misfortune of others go. Even cruelty to animals is now frowned upon. Even if the animal is a cane toad.

A judge in the Sutherland local court is to be commended for finally upholding common sense and a common sense of humour in her decision on The Chaser case. While the side line nay sayers were up in arms over the audacity of the Chaser team after they turned up at a Bulldogs game hawking fake supporters kits stocked with fake weapons – the judge in her conclusion said that the majority of people would have realised it was a joke – and that a reasonable person should not have been angered or outraged by it. Now certain people may be prepared to accuse the Chaser team of having an underdeveloped sense of propriety and may also suggest that they lack maturity – but surely a certain level of impropriety and immaturity is allowable for humour’s sake. There’s a reason that toilet humour still elicits laughs from movie audiences. Some people have lost touch with their inner child because they’re all to eager to jump on the politically correct bandwagon and condem the actions of others on behalf of an innocent third party.
If I choose to take a quote or comment out of context and take the taking out of context to its unnatural extreme (ala yesterday’s post) please don’t feel the need to condemn my actions on the basis that I have done so – instead see it for what it was – I was at work with very little to do, I had a silly conversation which amused me, and I posted it on my blog.
So in conclusion – unless I directly and purposefully offend you, please don’t take offence. Turn that frown upside down.

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