Dr. Peter McGraw, University of Colorado Boulder – Humor and Tragedy

Jan 29, 2013

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado Boulder explores what makes jokes about tragic events too soon. 

Peter McGraw is an associate professor of marketing at the University of Colorado Boulder. He directs three unique interdisciplinary research laboratories – the Judgment, Emotion and Choice Laboratory, the Moral Research Laboratory, and the Humor Research Laboratory. His current work includes developing a theory of mixed emotions, examining how businesses could better use humor, and investigating how consumers go about purchasing funerals and weddings. He holds a Ph.D. from Ohio State University.

About Dr. McGraw

Dr. Peter McGraw – Humor and Tragedy

When Mark Twain said, “Humor is tragedy plus time,” he intuitively understood one of the secrets to good comedy – Distance. Mel Brooks got it, also, in his famous quip. “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Studies conducted in the Humor Research Lab demonstrate these comedians’ insights are correct; having some distance from a tragic event helps make it funny.

The relationship between distance and humor can be explained by the Benign Violation Theory. The theory proposes humor occurs when you see something as both wrong and as okay. And we have found distance helps make a tragedy seem okay by lowering how threatening it is. For example, subjects reported that a severe violation, such as being hit by a car, was funnier if it happened ‘five years ago” than if it happened “yesterday.” However, in the same study, subjects reported that stubbing a toe was funnier if it happened ‘yesterday’ than if it happened “five years ago.”

In the case of mild mishaps, being closer to the violation made things funnier. The Benign Violation Theory can also explain why this occurs. In the case of mild mishaps, distance removes all of the threat of the violation and thus reduces humor. But closeness helps facilitate humor by maintaining some sense of threat. These findings suggest that there’s a real sweet spot in comedy – you have to get the right mix between how bad something is and how distant it is in order for it to be humorous.