The Null Device

The Benign Violation Theory

Peter McGraw, a behavioural economist from Colorado, has a grand unified theory of humour: he calls it the Benign Violation Theory; the gist of it is that, for something to be amusing, it has to involve a violation of norms, albeit one in which nobody is actually harmed.
Every kind of humor McGraw and Warren could think of fit into the BVT. Slapstick worked: Falling down the stairs, a physical violation, is only funny if nobody's actually hurt. A dirty joke trades on moral or social violations, but it's only going to get a laugh if the person listening is liberated enough to consider risqué subjects such as sex benign. Puns can be seen as violations of linguistic norms, though only cerebral types and grammarians care enough about the violation to chuckle.
McGraw believes the BVT may even help explain why, biologically, humans evolved with the ability to laugh. It is clearly a beneficial trait to be able to correctly perceive when a violation is benign and communicate that to others via laughter, he points out. Early humans who were afraid of every apparent violation, real or not, weren't going to last long — nor were those who took one look at a woolly mammoth charging their way and did nothing but bust a gut.
Which more or less makes sense, though McGraw's attempt to explain laughter as a reaction to being tickled by this theory seems to be grasping at straws. (I'd be more inclined to believe that the internal state arising from being tickled is quite different from that arising from perceiving a joke, even though they have the same external symptom.)

A theory of humour I once saw elsewhere suggested that laughter was a reflexive reaction to a frame of reference suddenly and abruptly being changed, and to being suddenly faced with the need to reevaluate an entire story, scene or proposition, especially if it has become more exciting or unusual in doing so. Of course, this is biased towards conceptual humour, such as a told joke in which a sudden wordplay causes the carefully constructed word-picture to come crashing down (take, for example: "When I die, I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather, not screaming like the passengers in his car"), or else stepping out of the frame and wantonly changing the (implied) terms of reference of the text of the first part of the joke ("What's orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot"). This act of conceptual violence triggers a minor earthquake in the listener's mind, which manifests itself as laughter (or a groan of disapproval if they've heard the joke before). Slapstick (and the bodily-function gross-out gags on which current Hollywood comedies are founded) are basically this for people who'd rather not mess with ideas. But both seem to be encompassed by the benign-violation framework.

Of course, the benignness is a negotiable point. One can tell a joke in which people die horribly (or worse), if the people are clearly hypothetical, stuffed straw dummies whose only purpose is to be sacrificed in a joke. Among bigots, jokes at the expense of out-groups also work because, by being dehumanised, the outgroup don't count as actual people. (A popularly tolerated echo of this are things like lawyer jokes, because nobody really believes in the possibility of exterminating all members of a profession.)

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