When does bad news become funny?

What makes the difference between successful satire or dark comedy, and jokes that make everybody hate you?

Obviously, some of this has to do with the personality and internal culture of the person or group you're talking to. For instance, some families use humor to deal with tragedy. For others, jokes at a funeral would be offensive. But there do seem to be some across-the-board rules of thumb at play, too.

At the University of Colorado Boulder, where the Humor Research Lab is a real thing (with a hilariously deadpan website and a strong commitment to punny acronyms), a team of scientists under the direction of psychologist/marketing researcher Peter McGraw have been studying human behavior to build a working theory of why we think stuff is funny.

All humor, according to McGraw's hypothesis, is based on moral violations — upending the social order or behavior we expect and think is "right". Humor happens when those violations are simultaneously noticed, but judged to be really not be that big of a deal. So when you're talking about inappropriate humor, the question becomes: How do you get your audience to see the moral violation as benign?

McGraw's team recently published a paper documenting the results of five different tests of inappropriate humor. Here's a clip from the Smithsonian news blog explaining how a couple of them worked:

First, they looked into the effect of psychological distance in terms of time by asking participants to describe events in their lives that either became more or less funny as time passed. Participants rated the event’s severity, and the researchers found that the more severe events became funnier over time compared to the more minor violations.

In a second experiment, participants reported a severe violation, like being hit by a car, as funnier if it happened several years go, while a mild violation, like stubbing a toe, was funnier if it happened very recently.

Basically, bad things become funny things when we find a balance between how bad the bad thing was, how long ago the bad thing happened, and how distant — physically, emotionally, and socially — the audience was from the event. Of course, that's where the subjectivity comes in. If you know your audience well, you're likely to do a better job of figuring out what will hit the sweet spot with them and what won't.

Read about all the experiments at Smithsonian.com

Read a full research paper explaining the McGraw group's basic hypothesis of humor

Via Colin Schultz