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


  1. All humor, according to McGraw’s hypothesis, is based on moral violations…

    I didn’t realize everyone thought of puns that way.

  2. ‘Humor happens when those violations are simultaneously noticed, but judged to be really not be that big of a deal.

    Ah,the tricky part.  What I’m finding increasingly difficult, is to keep company with people who find much if anything funny.

    1. That would be awfully depressing.  Humor is important.

      I have friends and family from different walks of life with vastly differing sensitivities and philosophies, but I find that most people with whom I associate still laugh at farts.  If we couldn’t at least share a giggle when Nana cuts one at the dinner table, Thanksgiving would be a dreary prospect indeed.

      A while back I mentioned an ancestor who had the misfortune to fall through the rotten wooden seat of her outhouse and drown.  At the remove of two or three generations, her fate is hysterically funny to me, but I greatly fear that if I were present on the occasion of her discovery, I still would not be able to keep myself from laughing myself to death, no matter how beloved she may have been.

      Something may be broken inside me.  Maybe poop shouldn’t strike me as quite that funny.

      1. I was sitting on a couch in a condo in Lincoln City, when the Toshiba suddenly posted my comment before I could finish my thought.  Since we had 45 minutes till check-out time, I decided to not try to fix it by replying to myself and go gaze wistfully instead at the ocean for a few minutes before driving back toward the Portland airport. 

        One of my favorite scenes in ‘Shipping News’ is Judy Dench taking the ashes of her dead brother to the outhouse, dumping them down the hole and sitting down to crap on them.  I laughed and laughed.  Both of my parents wish to have their ashes spread out on the ocean. If I get to those ashes before my brother, not all of dearly departed will be joining with the Pacific Ocean.

        1. My in-laws have accumulated a few jugs of ashes that need spreading somewhere-or-other.  (At a certain point in the familial cycle you really gotta keep on top of these things lest they accumulate like wire coathangers, it seems.)  At least two jugs contain the mortal remains of kinfolk who may yet, if they’re real lucky, escape the fate to which you darkly allude.  Not everyone ends up being welcome to join the shifting sands at the family beach.  But man, I for one seriously hope I never leave this world tempting my survivors to crap on my ashes!

        2. I used to threaten to have my mother stuffed. I was dead serious and started telling her that when I was ~ eight years old. 

          I went back to Massachusetts when she was dying.  I got a call in the morning that she had died.  By one in the afternoon, the funeral home that she had contracted with let me know that she was already cremated and the obituary which she had written was already sent to the paper.

          1. Now to me that’s funny.  First, that you were completely serious in telling maw you planned to have her stuffed (‘Harcourt Fenton Mudder!’).  Oh, the fun you could have had!  Second, that she believed you and made sure you couldn’t follow through.  Did you get custody of the ashes?

            What I wanted to say about humor is that it often starts with pain, or basic human suffering.  I’m seeing a failure of empathy in my community for each other’s pain, whether we share that particular circumstance of pain or not. 

      2. Maybe poop shouldn’t strike me as quite that funny.

        It probably wasn’t funny then because it was everywhere.

        On the other hand, a real joke from 1918:

        I had a little bird; her name was Enza.  I opened the window and in flew Enza.

        A quarter of the world’s population was sickened with the flu that year and between 50,000,000 and 130,000,000 died.

  3. I’m like 99.99999% certain not all humor works this way.  Last time I got a belly laugh out of people this was the joke:
    Bill: Well, there’s the project I need to get out in like two weeks.
    Boss: No, that’s not due until October.
    Me: And as we watch the sweat sucks back into Bill’s forehead.

    In fact, I go out of my way to make sure my humor is (mostly) non-offensive and not at anyone’s expense.  I can’t think of many Jim Gaffigan or Mitch Hedburg routines that use moral taboos this way either.

    1.  I agree–the hypothesis that all humour stems from moral violations isn’t consistent with my experience, either.

      For example, take this quote from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy:

      “It must be Thursday. I could never get the hang of Thursdays.”

      I’m fairly certainly I lol’d when I first read this line, but I see no moral violation here. It’s just absurd that Arthur Dent would consistently find Thursdays harder than any other day of the week.

      1. I’m unsure about one of my favorite jokes about jokes: “Her idea of wit is nothing more than an incisive observation humorously phrased and delivered with impeccable timing.” 

    2. Speaking as an authority – an internet celebrity once called a tweet I wrote ‘funny’ – I hope they don’t just mean moral ‘rightness’ in the generally-used sense. If they do I suspect confirmation bias. That kind of humour does work more or less as described, but that’s not all humour.

      For mine the essense of a gag (‘jokes’ being just one kind of gag) is surprising whatever any kind of expectations in the audience (in a non-distressing way). I know a guy who teaches clowning in terms of setting up a rhythmn and breaking it (even with something as basic as breathing). It starts that simple.

      I can see how that response to undangerous surprises could be adaptive in a number of ways. (I also heard someone chatting about the idea of laughter as a group ‘danger over’ signal, which would explain the rules and, being an evolutionary psychology explanation, is also inherently amusing.)

  4. When somebody dies.

    “Someone walked in on Michael Hutchence masturbating and choking himself.”
    “Oh, that’s sad; he’s lost his mind”


    “Somebody found Michael Hutchence dead. He’s hung himself while masturbating.”
    “Oh, that’s sad. He must have lost…wait, what was he doing?”

  5. What’s with all these researchers (not comedians) who think humour is only based on the darkest of instincts? I’m a professional comedian (and PhD), the two elements found in all comedy are SURPRISE and/or ABSURDITY. What moral violation is there in the joke “Why did the chicken cross the road?” We laugh because it’s absurd. As adults we laugh because finding that joke funny is absurd as well.

  6. I’ve often wondered how many centuries will have to pass before people make Hitler jokes with the same equanimity with which we would now make Attila-the-Hun or Genghis Khan jokes.

  7. Years ago I started a graduate seminar called “Humor in Art.” I didn’t have the answers, but thought that the collective effort of similarly-attuned people could make some headway. There was precious little info in the library on that subject at the time, and  almost none of it tried to
    get a handle on what humor actually IS or how it works. E.g., how can a thing be funny to the same person more than once (i.e., when the element of surprise is missing)? But it can happen. I had noticed that all humor seemed to involve misfortune on somebody’s part (even puns have victims).
    Freud thought of humor as an “adaptive regression,” and though he may not have been entirely right, I don’t think he was entirely wrong either.  At this point I have the intuition (admittedly vague, but intuition is often vague by its nature) that whatever definitions and understandings we manage to find about humor will just obsolesce and take some other form we don’t quite understand. Incomplete or mistaken understanding seems to be present in most humor-response I can presently think of. – – KP

Comments are closed.