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The Science Behind a Laughter Epidemic and Other Ways that Humor Works


I spoke with the psychology professor who co-wrote The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny on a laughter epidemic in Tanzania, how The Onion's editors produced their first post-September 11 issue, and why alcohol doesn't always make you funnier.

Alice Robb: What makes something funny?

Peter McGraw: We laugh when something is wrong, yet ok—when something is threatening but simultaneously safe. It’s what I call the benign violation theory.

Take something like slapstick. You have someone getting hurt, getting hit over the head with a hammer, but you know the person’s not really hurt because they’re an actor, or because they keep behaving as they were before. Hitting someone with a real hammer, on the other hand, isn’t funny because it’s very clearly not OK. Tickling is the same. It’s a harmless attack—it elicits laughter in the ‘victim.’ If you tickle yourself, it’s boring because there’s no threat. It’s a purely benign situation. But if a creepy stranger tries to tickle you on the way home tonight, that’s purely threatening and not funny.

AR: Why did I just laugh, then?

PM: People often laugh when I say that. I think it’s because you can imagine how terrifying it would be, but because it’s imaginary, it can be benign.


PM: The theory also applies to things like word play and joke-telling. It helps explain why a joke that makes one person laugh might make another person groan and yet another person yawn—it depends on their interpretation of what’s wrong and what’s OK. And it depends on who the butt of the joke is. Are you making fun of the weak or the powerful? Are you making fun of people that are liked or disliked? Another thing that can reduce the threat of violation is the passage of time—you get that pattern where a joke about a tragedy becomes funny, but eventually becomes less funny when the threat has passed and it’s become a benign situation.

AR: Another thing that affects our appreciation of humor is alcohol. In the book, you talk about a 1997 study showing that people laugh harder at a comedy film after having a couple of drinks.  

PM: People are quicker to laugh when they’ve had a few drinks, but there’s a caveat: Subtle forms of comedy may seem less funny. Alcohol impairs cognition, so you might not pick up on the joke as well.

The question we were interested in was whether alcohol makes you better at producing humor—not just whether things seem funnier, but whether you actually become funnier. We took advertising execs and creative types to a bar and had them create funny content. They were already pretty funny people, and as they got more and more drunk they believed that the stuff they were creating was becoming funnier, but when we had an audience rank the jokes they were coming up with, there were very few changes in terms of how amusing their content actually was.

AR: Laughter isn’t always an expression of amusement. You talk about a finding of Robert Provine, a psychologist who catalogued instances of laughter in the real world and found that fewer than 20 percent of them were in response to jokes.

PM: One thing Provine finds is that laughter can be just a polite thing that people do—they sort of punctuate their sentences with it and it seems to help facilitate social interaction.

The U.S. is a pretty open society. People feel comfortable making jokes in most circumstances—at work, in school, in public, with strangers. In Japan, there’s a vibrant comedy scene, but it’s very compartmentalized. You find expressions of humor in comedy clubs and karaoke bars but you don’t see a lot of it in the workplace, in the classroom, on the subway.

Laughter isn’t always associated with positive experience. In 1962, there was an alleged epidemic of laughter in Tanzania. It started with a few girls in a boarding school, and the laughter supposedly spread like a virus, from person to person and village to village. In the end they closed the school and sent the girls back to their homes.

We flew to Tanzania to meet the people who were affected by it and try to figure it out. One thing that became clear was that the girls who were originally afflicted were at a very religious boarding school and it was a tough place to live—they had left their villages and their families and were living under very strict rules. We ended up finding that this was a case of “mass motor hysteria,” a sort of psychosomatic illness brought on by stress. Laughter is only one of the symptoms people may have. Sometimes people cry or have physical fits.

AR: In the book, you talk about the trend of using laughter as therapy. 

PM: People always talk about how laughter affects the body, and there are certainly some physical benefits of it, but the value of humor goes far beyond that. It can change the way you perceive the world. When you’ve seen something that’s threatening or tragic and you’ve made fun of it, you’ve laughed in the face of your challenges—you can see them differently and they’re less stressful.

When we went to New York, we met with the head writer of The Onion who was responsible for one of their most famous issues, the one they published about ten days after the 9/11 attacks. They did something smart to avoid this ‘too soon’ problem: They made fun of the terrorists. They made the terrorists seem like buffoons, like fools, which was funny and I think shows how comedy can help people cope. If you can transform violations into benign violations, you can not only make people laugh but you can change the way they see the world. You can make the terrorists seem less scary.

AR: Is there anything people can do to become funnier?

PM: If you want to find things that are funny, look for things that seem wrong about a situation. Seek out the violations—they’re a good set-up for your joke. And be quick to apologize. If you’re going to look at the world and find the things that are wrong, you’re going to offend people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.