Understanding satire: What makes people laugh?

Before delving into satire, it might be useful to explore why human beings laugh in the first place. This PBS video looks at laughter from a scientific point of view and suggests that laughter, itself, is not exclusive to humour.  “We (laugh) to communicate understanding, to show we like and accept others, to defuse awkward situations, and, yes, sometimes even to be mean.”  It’s worth a watch.

If you’d like to go a little more in depth on the topic of comedy and humour, it’s interesting to look at the benign violation theory. Developed by A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, the benign violation theory predicts that people will find humour in situations that fall somewhere between being benign (harmless) and a violation (harmful, breaking a rule or social norm). When those two factors are noticed simultaneously, we laugh. When either one is absent, we don’t.

In other words, there must be some violation of social norms, rules, or other kind of “harm” done, but it must also be seen by the viewers as more-or-less harmless. You might laugh when you see someone else trip and fall, but not once you notice they’re severely hurt. Tickling, explains McGraw, is a violation of personal space. However, when you’re tickled by someone you know and trust, you react by laughing because it’s a benign violation. When you try to tickle yourself you don’t react at all because there’s no violation whatsoever. It’s too benign. On the other hand, if you attempt to tickle a random stranger on the street, this action will not likely be greeted with laughter as it will be viewed solely as a violation and not benign at all.

If you want to know more, you can hear Peter McGraw explain his theory himself in this Ted Talk:

I see this theory in action nearly every day on the Daily Bonnet. Whether someone “gets” the jokes depends on them seeing the violation that is taking place (in the case of satire it may be an exaggeration of a familiar situation). On other hand, when someone “takes offence” it is because they don’t see the violation as benign. They perceive that a harm of some sort has actually occurred.

Of course, the middle ground of benign violation will differ with each person. For some, any degree of profanity, for example, is seem as a harm and not benign. To others, profanity is harmless and funny. In fact, the reason swearing works to get a laugh is precisely because it breaks a social norm, but at the same time is regarded by many people as more-or-less harmless. They’re only words, after all.

“That’s not funny!”

When someone warns “that’s not funny,” what they are saying is, in their estimation, the joke crossed from the benign violation zone to the violation zone. On the other hand, when someone says “I don’t get it” (or ‘gets’ it but finds the joke cheesy), they are saying it is too benign to be funny.

The very nature of all humour, though, is that there’s always the potential to offend. If there wasn’t any potential to offend, according to McGraw’s theory, there would also be no potential for humour. Even so-called “clean” humour works on some level of violation. It is only perceived as “clean” based on a certain set of movable and niche social norms that vary by time and place. However, without any violation whatsoever (a funny accent, a pun, an awkward situation, a mild scatological reference), it won’t be funny.

(Click here to return to Teaching satire)