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Humor and Pain


In our latest report from the humanities research seminar on humor, David Blakely explore the surprising connections between laughter and suffering.

I recently saw an evening of stand-up comedy. One young comic, a lanky youth with hands like nervous birds, told roundabout – albeit very funny – jokes with a quirky delivery. He seemed uncomfortable on stage. After a particularly awkward joke he quickly followed up with, “So. I’m single.” Everyone laughed. Why did everyone laugh? Well, as I analyze the “joke,” the comic was simply delivering an obvious, if painful truth: he’s a nervous, quirky young man, uncomfortable and with a strange sense of humor; of course he’s single. We are laughing at his pain.

It’s nothing new really. People have been laughing at the misery of others for a long time. There’s a German word for it: Schadenfreude (literally, “harm-joy”), laughing at the misery of others. Another name for it is epicaricacy. But identifying what we do doesn’t explain why we do it.

The Humor Research Lab in Colorado (HuRL, for short) has been exploring this phenomenon. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren have been developing and testing a general theory of humor called the benign violation theory. The theory builds on work by a linguist, Tom Veatch, who postulates that humor exists in situations where 1. There is a perceived violation, 2. There is a perceived sense of normalcy, and 3. Both of the perceptions exist simultaneously.

HRLThe violations can come in many forms. The violation of a physical norm — that is, tripping or falling down — is probably the oldest form of humor, but other norms can be violated: social norms (farting in public), cultural norms (accordion jokes), linguistic norms (puns), or moral norms (jokes about animal “husbandry”). These violations do not have to come in the form of a joke; observing any of these violations from a point of safety creates humor. Or so the theory goes.

The sense of normalcy creates a comfort zone that allows the observer the opportunity to find humor. If the violation is of a norm we are not strongly committed to, there is distance enough to laugh. There can be psychological distance, or physical distance, or temporal distance.

For example: say you have a calamitous day – everything goes wrong. You come home completely exhausted from the disaster of the day (let’s call it D-day) and somebody cracks a joke about it. Your reaction might be to lash out. The day is still fresh in the mind. But two weeks later you are having another awful day and somebody jokes, “Well, at least it’s not D-day.” And you laugh. Enough time has passed for you to process D-day and laugh at it.

Of course, time isn’t the only distancing force. Try this: think of a 4-letter word for a woman that ends in UNT. You might feel a bit uncomfortable with the words (or a particular word) that come to mind. You might feel this isn’t funny. You might feel uncomfortable. When the answer is revealed – AUNT – you might laugh. The humor doesn’t come from a distancing from your uncomfortable feelings, but from an alternative rationalization or moral escape route that brings you out of the violation to a place of safety.

The theory of benign violation has built into it a possible answer to an age-old question: why do people laugh at jokes that aren’t funny? People have different values and beliefs and take more or less time to get over events. The Three Stooges are comic genii to some and sophomoric buffoons to others. And those people who do not find the Stooges funny may fall into one of two possible explanations. Some people might find Stooge antics too much of a violation – it disgusts or horrifies. Others might find their antics boring and not a violation at all.

Mark Twain once wrote, “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in Heaven.” Our idea of Heaven is a place without violation. All the streets are paved with gold, and all the dogs are house-broken. And all the nervous, quirky young comics are married.