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Comedy = X, X = WTF?

Linus Pauling's chalkboard (Oregon State U. Special Collections)

One of the most common tropes in the world of comedy is: tragedy + time = comedy. To an extent that’s true, and I’ve even explicated my own theory on that equation when Amy Winehouse died and the subsequent jokes that followed.

From that post, one commenter modified the equation to account for how people could make legitimately funny jokes about a tragedy that happened:

(tragedy + time)/context = comedy

Given the right context (i.e. not relying on pure shock for humor), decent jokes about the Holocaust, rape, 9/11, and unfortunate celebrity deaths can be cracked with relative success.

There’s also volume = comedy, but that’s more of an inside joke than anything else.

The world of academia has indeed ventured to figure out comedy in the form of theory or scientific rules. There’s even a Humor Research Lab set up in Boulder, CO dedicated to lab-tested research of what is behind making people laugh. In reading about their studies and their attempt to explain every joke ever made, I immediately thought, “Do you really need to find the root of every joke in order to predict the Super Bowl Groupon ad bombing? Last time I checked, there’s still plenty of deadly viruses that need curing.”

The head of the Humor Research Lab, Peter McGraw, tried explaining that the key to making people laugh is “benign violation,” which is the idea that laughter is sparked from people’s values, mores, and beliefs being threatened in a seemingly non-threatening way. When presenting this theory to Louis CK as the explanation behind every joke ever, CK quickly rejected it on the basis that it only explains certain types of jokes.

In equation form, the BVT theory might look something like this:

(V x T)/T = comedy

V = “veil” which keeps the benign dynamic up
T = threat

Besides “threat” or “violation” being words that are much too strong to describe any comedic observation, CK is absolutely right in that BVT only accounts for specific types of jokes and humor. The traditional “set-up/punch” style of humor fits into that model, but more progressive comedy acts such as Reggie Watts can hardly be described as threatening.

Reggie Watts at the Super Serious Show:

Utilizing a more charismatic “in-the-moment” absurdist take on comedy, Watts makes wrangling an explanation to what he does on stage that makes people laugh much more complicated. Virtuosic in his musical and improvising skills along with being 100% likeable, Reggie does seemingly whatever he feels like doing and pretty much everyone watching is on board.

A broader theory of “benign violation” called “incongruity” posits that realizing the incongruity of something that wasn’t previously thought to be incongruous makes people laugh. Realizing something isn’t right that you just took for granted also is a common way that people get terrified.

A possible mathematical translation might go like this:

R ^ (S – E) = comedy (read R to the power of the difference between S and E)

R = realization
S = subject
E = everything about S that is “congruent”

There are plenty of examples throughout the pantheon of comedy where there is no surprise and anyone listening and/or watching knows exactly where the joke, story, sketch, movie, etc. is going. Even with a completely spot-on prediction, many people will laugh at their expectations being met in a creative way (i.e. a bad movie continually being bad or the bad guy getting what they deserve).

End of Ferris Bueller Day’s Off:

Also, back at the absurdist extremist of comedy, incongruity can be pushed so far to where there is no realization that there wasn’t anything congruous in the first place. Simply, it’s sheer abstraction, but in a funny way. Just check comedian Brent Weinbach and his latest appearance on Conan; he develops material and performs in such a way that encourages audiences to laugh organically at any point instead of just at a punchline.

Brent Weinbach on Conan:

Impersonal is a stellar collection of absurdist, highbrow bits, whereas his latest special for Comedy Central was a stellar collection of stories about his life coming up as the professional humorist he is now. However, it is a falsehood to assume that just telling the truth is the final level in comedy.  Hardly any of Mitch Hedberg’s brilliant jokes were founded in truth, honesty, reality, and all the alike. Yet, no one can doubt that his writing, on-stage persona, unique cadence and delivery were all undeniably Mitch. The missing variable here is what I’m going to call sincerity. Just like Louis CK’s story about his daughters are completely sincere, so Hedberg’s joke about Target was sincerely a creative extension of his thoughts and ideas.

With all of this in mind, I subconsciously set out, based on my observations as well as performing stand-up on a nightly basis and watching comedy nearly every waking minute of my life, to come up with my own equation explaining the mechanism behind comedy.  I first made up a bunch of nonsense like this:

E + T = comedy

(E + T)/C = comedy, where E = expectation, T = twist, C = context

I had seen it several times before, but “defiance” of people’s expectations, as opposed to a “violation” of their perspective, makes for what’s funny. That’s way too simplified, and, like I’ve pointed out above, a formula that could be used for something outside of comedy like depressing the shit out of people (see: the reality vs. expectation scene from 500 Days of Summer).

After getting frustrated, having a double of scotch, and watching Fight Club again, I came up with this:

(√O + S)/C = comedy, where O = observation, S = sincerity,C = context

It’s the root of an observation. Get it? Yeah, I crumpled that one up and threw it in the waste basket of my subconscious. Taking into account everything discussed above I’ve settled (for now) on the following:

(A + S)/C = Comedy, where A = abstraction, S = sincerity, C = context

Unlike the BVT and incongruity theory, abstraction represents the thing that has a “deal” to be questioned or an expectation to be spun around. When carried out with “sincerity” over the proper context, the ending result is comedy. Yet, this equation still doesn’t account for quality, or, more specifically, “good comedy”. What the X is, behind that, is and will always be beyond the reach of science, because all art forms, especially comedy, is always at the discretion of someone’s subjectivity.

Despite this lengthy exploration into trying to factor the elements of comedy into discernible equation, the only real formula that works, given the aforementioned wide subjectivity of people and what they laugh at, is funny = funny. Outside of that, I have no idea why anybody finds any comedy by Tyler Perry legitimately funny.

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7 comments

  • Hi, Jake. Thanks for the mentions. I have a paper that is forthcoming at psychology journal that looks at whether humor = tragedy + time.

    McGraw, A.P., Warren, C., Williams, L., & Leonard, B., (Forthcoming). Too close for comfort, or too far to care? Finding humor in distant tragedies and close mishaps. Psychological Science.

    Here is a pdf of the paper: http://leeds-faculty.colorado.edu/mcgrawp/pdf/mcgraw.warren.williams.leonard.pdf

    All the best,
    pete

    Abstract: Humor is ubiquitous and often beneficial, but its antecedents have been debated for millennia.We examine two factors that jointly influence perceptions of humor: the degree to which a stimulus is a violation (tragedy vs. mishap) and one’s perceived distance from the stimulus (far vs. close). Five studies then show that tragedies (which feature severe violations) are more humorous when temporally, socially, hypothetically, or spatially distant, but that mishaps (which
    feature mild violations) are more humorous when psychologically close. Although prevailing theories of humor have difficulty explaining the interaction revealed in the studies, the result is consistent with an account that proposes that humor occurs when a violation simultaneously seems benign. A benign violation account suggests that distance facilitates humor for tragedies by reducing threat, but closeness facilitates humor for mishaps by maintaining some sense of threat. We discuss implications for theories of humor and psychological distance.

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  • My Mom finds Tyler Perry funny but she cannot for the life of her explain why this is the case. The mystery continues.

    For what it’s worth she did not understand why I found the Nerdist funny. She said to me that she was amused by failed to understand my fascination with them.

    My enjoyment of the show was heightened by the communal aspect of the experience. But being in a room with a bunch of like minded individuals defiantly increased the enjoyment of the humor itself.
    For example, I went to see John Oliver. Sure we all were fans of the Daily Show. I listen to the Bugle. But I never felt that same sense of community as I did at the Nerdist live podcast.

    My small point is that my gut tells me this shared community experience is more than context.

    I really liked this article. It started me thinking. I’ll stop rambling now.

    -Di.