The Dark Psychology of Being a Good Comedian

New research shows that the best humor is both a little bit wrong and a little bit right. Is there something about comedians that makes them better at subversion?
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Comedian Tin Vodopivec performs. (Camera on autopilot/flickr)

Immediately after 9/11, comedy ground to a halt. The Daily Show went off the air for nine days. Saturday Night Live, whose 27th season started 18 days later, featured a somber cold-open with Lorne Michaels asking New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, "Can we be funny?"

The staffers of The Onion, the satirical paper that had just relocated to New York, weren’t sure how to answer that question. Even three weeks after the attack, the comedian Gilbert Gottfried was publicly hissed at for joking that he was taking a flight that would make a stop at the Empire State Building.

Screenshot: The Onion

The Onion staffers agonized, but they eventually settled on publishing an entire paper devoted to 9/11 on September 26. As described by psychologist Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner in their upcoming book, The Humor Code, the issue was smash hit. The Onion writers aimed their bile at the hijackers, whom they depicted being tortured by “tusked, asp-tongued demons” in Hell. One headline read, “God Angrily Clarifies 'Don't Kill' Rule.”

The paper was deluged with fan mail from readers who seemed to find catharsis in the terrorists' derisive rendering.

The Onion’s triumph reflects McGraw’s long-held theory that comedy is equal parts darkness and light. The best jokes, he believes, take something awful and make it silly. Go purely light-hearted and you risk being toothless. Too edgy, and like Gottfried, you’ll make people uncomfortable. 

This “benign violation” theory of humor is central to The Humor Code, which Warner and McGraw, a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, researched by digging into comedy trends around the world. The book comes out on April 1 (obviously).                                                             

McGraw’s thinking expands on the work of Stanford psychologist Thomas Veatch, which in turn builds on past explanations about why we laugh. Great thinkers have been trying for centuries to figure out the evolutionary purpose of comedy. The theories that have emerged are all very different, but one thing they share is a tendency to hint at the art form's shadowy side.

Hobbes and Plato took the playground perspective, suggesting that making fun helps us feel superior to others. Kant and later psychologists though it was about a cognitive shift that moves a serious situation into playful territory. In 1905, Freud suggested that humor was the fun-loving id making itself known despite the protestations of the conformist superego.

A few years ago, psychologist Daniela S. Hugelshofer suggested that humor acts as a buffer against depression and hopelessness. And evolutionary psychologists have suggested that humor is a way to subtly outshine our competitors for mates. Nothing says “pick me” like having an entire office/bar/dorm double over at your imitation of Shosh from Girls.

These approaches have a lot in common, though: You can’t make a joke without inserting a wicked twist, and you can’t be a comedian without holding a small amount of power, for even a short period of time, over the audience.

And if that’s the case, is there something about the psychology of comedians that makes them better able to tap into these “violations”? Do they enjoy wielding that kind of power? Or do funny people just know something the rest of us don’t?

***

One of McGraw’s favorite quotes is from Mark Twain: “The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.”

It’s this juxtaposition of injury and cheer that McGraw has studied in depth, both in his book and at the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Humor Research Lab (acronym: HURL).

“Humor is something people inherently enjoy,” he told me. “But there also needs to be something wrong, unsettling, and threatening in some way. We call those violations.”

Our caveman ancestors lived in a world rife with physical threats. There was relief in discovering that a rustling in the darkness was a mouse rather than a saber-toothed tiger.

“Before people could speak, laughter served as a signaling function,” McGraw explained. “As if to say, ‘this is a false alarm, this is a benign violation.’”

Tickling, the basic form of humor that even non-verbal primates use, is a perfect example: “There's a threat there, but it's safe,” McGraw said. “It's not too aggressive and it's done by someone you trust.”

Today, our threats are less likely to be four-legged, but humor still serves as a way to overcome them. Jokes ease tension; they help us deal with life’s injustices, both minor and large. But like the Onion staffers after 9/11, jokes have to air these wrongs before making them right.

When jokes are too gentle or anodyne, like this picture of a cat, we don’t laugh; there’s no violation. (“You can’t tickle yourself,” McGraw explains.) Meanwhile, something that’s too offensive, like, say, this, is purely a violation. (“Like if a creepy guy in a trench coat tried to tickle you,” he said. “That’s terrifying!”)

Some cultures avoid these types of blatant transgressions by restricting the topics that can be fodder for jokes. But Warner, McGraw’s co-author, noticed that while some cultures compartmentalize humor by subject matter, others do so by geography. When they were in Japan, for example, they noticed that the comedy in clubs was as raunchy as it gets, but certain settings were entirely off-limits to joking:

“In the office or at school, that's not okay,” Warner said. “It was not okay to laugh in the office of the humor researchers, even. But in bars and karaoke theaters, anything goes.”

In the HURL lab, McGraw has been trying determine what exactly flips a joke from offensive to funny. Or in research terms, what puts the “benign” in “benign violation?”

Through clinical studies, the lab has found that tragedies—think earthquakes, deaths, and the like—are funnier when they’re either physically or socially distant. “Mishaps” meanwhile, are funnier when we’re closer to them, which is why Anthony Weiner’s Twitter misadventures featured prominently on American late-night shows, but comparable foibles by, say, an Indonesian politician would not have. Likewise, participants found a picture of a man with a frozen beard (mishap) funnier than a man with his finger stuck through his own eye socket (tragedy.)

Psychological Science

The lab has also identified that jokes can, indeed, be “too soon,” as my colleague Julie Beck described: One study by McGraw and researchers at Texas A&M University found tweets about Hurricane Sandy to be least funny 15 days after it struck, most funny 36 days after the fact, and once again not funny 99 days later.

The passage of about a month, they wrote, creates a “sweet spot” in which poking fun at sadness is neither too neutered nor too sharp: “A tragic event is difficult to joke about at first, but the passage of time initially increases humor as the event becomes less threatening. Eventually, however, distance decreases humor by making the event seem completely benign.”

It's even better if the comedy can put the audience physically on edge, which is why most comedy clubs cram people into a tiny room and force them to sit on hard stools, he said—it’s best if the audience doesn’t get too comfortable.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where she covers health.

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