Q. In your book you introduce the “Benign Violation Theory”, a framework that explains what makes something funny. Can you explain it in more depth?
A. So the Benign Violation Theory, in essence, takes a lot of ideas that have been around for almost two thousand years now, and tries to put them together into a universal theory of what makes something funny. But the theory is a little bit counterintuitive. It actually suggests that humor arises from negative things, things that are threatening, wrong or amiss in some way.
Mark Twain captured this idea when he said that the secret source of humor is not joy, but sorrow. So, we use the term “violation” to describe those types of situations. But most violations in the world, they don’t normally make us laugh; they make us cry, they disgust us, they offend us, or they scare us. So there needs to be something that makes a “violation” situation safe or acceptable in some some way - there needs to be an appraisal that [makes makes the “violation”] situation “benign”. In short, we laugh at situations that are wrong but OK.
How has your work been received by comedians and the academic community?
Anytime you want to do something ambitious like this you have to expect critics. But actually critics are doing you a huge favor - [they motivate you to] work harder, think longer and deeper about a problem. Some comedians love it, some hate it. But I believe that if you can put me in a room with a comedian I can convince him or her that there’s value in studying the science of comedy and in trying to understand this stuff, even if as a comic you don’t need a theory to be funny.
Generally, academics don’t really care that much about a popular press book, like The Humor Code. With our academic research, we’ve had some trouble here and there getting stuff [into academic journals], but overall it’s actually been a pretty positive experience. Caleb Warren (co-creator of the Benign Violation Theory) and I try to find research problems and then present the Benign Violation Theory as a unique solution to that problem. That’s been a very useful strategy - it ended up being a piecemeal approach, but you keep getting the idea out there.
Has it been difficult to raise funding for your work?
Well, because humor is by it’s very nature a light-hearted topic, at first blush people could think that it’s not a serious topic of scientific study. Other psychological experiences, like embarrassment, regret, pride and awe, are topics that [immediately] seem very serious. But it’s pretty easy to make the case that humor is important since it’s effects are so profound - from the decisions we make in our daily activities, to its use in helping people cope with stress, pain, and adversity, to how it enhances our social relationships, etc.
We’ve received some grants here and there. One of the nice things is that there are research students who are willing to volunteer some of their time. It’s not like it’s our work is one of those research topics where people say, “Oh my god, I really don’t want to do this project, but I need the money.” People do it for the love of the game, so to speak. However, eventually I’m going to need some funds. I really need a postdoctoral researcher, or a more advanced scholar, to help with some of the ideas we have moving forward in the next few years.
So, going forward what are you guys looking to do?
So I’ve been working on this idea for 6 years and I plan to work on it for 6 more. So for the next 6 years I want to do 3 things: One, continue getting the word out, writing about and talking about the importance of understanding humor and using science to do so. Two, start thinking more and more about humor in organizations and the role it plays in marketing and management. (This especially makes sense for me, since I’m a business school professor.) And three (and this is the big hairy audacious goal), if I claim to have a theory of what makes things funny, can I apply it in a way that makes the world a more humorous place? Can I start to help people become funnier and appreciate humorous things more often and more deeply? So far, we’ve been doing this theoretical work, but the plan is to do the empirical work too.
Who’s your favorite comedian currently?
Louis C.K., even though he and I don’t see eye to eye on what makes things funny [McGraw and Louis C.K. have a hilarious but awkward moment in The Humor Code when he tries to explain his theory]. I’m really impressed with what he is doing, not only in his stand up, but also in his television show. He’s a very funny comedian and he’s incredibly productive. He’s creating a lot of new material, but he’s also moving the industry forward. He’s at the leading edge of innovation, whether it’s how he sells tickets or how he’s selling his specials to the consumer directly, etc. It’s really impressive as a businessperson and as an artist.
Dr. McGraw's book, "The Humor Code", can be purchased here.
Dr. Peter McGraw
Peter McGraw is a Professor of Marketing and Psychology at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business. He recently published a book, entitled The Humor Code, which shares his theory (called the “Benign Violation Theory”) about what makes things funny. The book, which discusses his worldwide trip to conduct humor experiments in different cultures, garnered significant acclaim from the New York Times, among many other publications. An expert in the psychology of judgment and decision making, Dr. McGraw currently directs University of Colorado’s Humor Research Lab (HuRL), a “laboratory dedicated to the experimental study of humor, its antecedents and consequences,” in an effort to discover the topic’s implications for marketing and management.