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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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April 27th, 2011

Stranger to the World


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