A “grand, unifying theory of humor”?

A marketing and psychology professor argues that he can explain all humor:

There may be many types of humor, maybe as many kinds as there are variations in laughter, guffaws, hoots, and chortles. But 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…

The theory they lay out: “Laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign.” That is, they perceive a violation—”of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bedpan, strange behaviors), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviors)”—while simultaneously recognizing that the violation doesn’t pose a threat to them or their worldview. The theory is ludicrously, vaporously simple. But extensive field tests revealed nuances, variables that determined exactly how funny a joke was perceived to be.

I’ll attempt a quick and dirty translation into sociological terms: each society or culture has particular norms about right and wrong behavior. Violating these norms often leads to negative sanctions. But according to this academic,  humor works because the recipient of humor sees that violating the norms isn’t an attempt to overthrow the norms. The key appears to be the ability to show that the intended humor is “benign,” that the person sharing the humor has good intentions or still operates within the culture’s larger norms. Humor ceases to be humor when hearers think that the teller has “hit too close to home” or is mean-spirited.

After reading about this attempt at theory, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t read more from sociologists about humor. I know there is some work out there on this but in my reading and training, I remember hearing little about this basic feature of everyday life.

0 thoughts on “A “grand, unifying theory of humor”?

  1. I am not sure that I agree with this. What of the times when Comedy is used to undermine the social norms, challenging them, perhaps to breaking point? I concede that Comedy is at times ‘benign violation’ but may it not also be a violation in hope of a more benign social norm? By laughing at something, unless it is out of fear, we are neutralising our reaction to the subject. Comedians often bring up topics that we, as a socity, are not yet wholly comfortable with. The act of laughter relaxes our attitudes toward the subject, making it a more pliable concept, ready for change.


  2. Pingback: Majority of young adults “see online slurs as just joking” | Legally Sociable

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