The Grand Unified Theory of Humor

Psst! Ever heard about the professor who tries to explain every joke ever told?

No, that's actually not a joke. Joel Warner of Wired explains how Peter McGraw attemps to explain what makes things funny.

A lanky 41-year-old professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, McGraw thinks he has found the answer, and it starts with a tickle. “Who here doesn’t like to be tickled?”

A good number of hands shot up. “Yet you laugh,” he said, flashing a goofy grin. “You experience some pleasurable reaction even as you resist and say you don’t like it.”

If you really stop to think about it, McGraw continued, it’s a complex and fascinating phenomenon. If someone touches you in certain places in a certain way, it prompts an involuntary but pleasurable physiological response. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. “When does tickling cease to be funny?” McGraw asked. “When you try to tickle yourself … Or if some stranger in a trench coat tickles you.” The audience cracked up. He was working the room like a stand-up comic.

Many would assert that this tickling conundrum is the perfect evidence that humor is utterly relative. 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.

Link (Photo: Andrew Hetherington)

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Because egotism has greater representation in social situations.

Otherwise none of these theories can account for the kind of laughter that proceeds from insanity. They all depend on their existing certain environmental factors, whereas humor based solely in egotism is available to anyone anywhere. Even if they are criminally insane and existing in a padded room. Laughing at the absurdity of one's own life isn't necessary indicative of acceptance. Sometimes we laugh when we have no control over our own lives, and it is a laugh laden with anger. It's not an acceptable violation, it's a maniacal laughter. e.g. "muahahaha"

Everything human is pathetic. The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.
Mark Twain
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Humor is simply the element of surprise. When someone falls down, we laugh because it was not expected and we were shocked. The same goes for a punch line. It is an unexpected surprise.

That is why old jokes aren't funny. You know what punch line is coming. The element of surprise is gone. Comedy albums are lame for the same reason. It's no fun to hear a stand up comic do the same routine over and over.
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@ Ryan S, if humour can be explained under the umbrella of self and egotism, why do we laugh far more around others than when we are by ourselves? Clearly there is a strong social component.
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I disagree, furthermore I disagree that Plato and Aristotle had such a myopic view of humor.

Science has historically tried to lump everything together under one explanatory umbrella, with many successes. Either as essences, behaviors, cognition, representation and evolution.

By explaining humor in evolutionary terms, I think the actuality of it is missed, though the model may prove to map onto humor well. It has long been believed that "absurdity" was the source of humor, which may be akin to "violation". But I do not think laughter is an evolutionary signal that some violation is okay. Quite often we laugh anxiously when something is not okay.

Rather, humor should be explained under the umbrella of self and egotism.
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