Academics just created a theory that explains why your favorite joke is funny

It’s funny because it’s true—kind of.
It’s funny because it’s true—kind of.
Image: Reuters/Toru Hanai
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

What makes a joke funny?

Having to answer that question kills a joke on the spot. But academics at the Humor Research Lab, or HuRL (a real thing at the University of Colorado, Boulder) have come up with a formula explaining why some jokes, situations, and stories hit our funny bones, while others just fall flat.

Here it is: Humor = violation of expectations or norms + benign conditions. Ba-dum-BING!

Previous humor theories have largely concluded that humor is based on “incongruity,” a vague concept that can mean unexpectedness, the pairing of unlikely symbols, or violated expectations.

Unsatisfied with that explanation, Caleb Warren and A. Peter McGraw decided to drill a little deeper in a recent Journal of Personality and Social Psychology paper titled, “Differentiating What Is Humorous From What Is Not.”

They found that humor most reliably originates from the “violated expectations” definition of incongruity—that is, when something upsets your idea of how things should be, rather than just how they usually are. The type of stuff that makes you say “That’s so wrong,” as opposed to “That’s not typical.”

The other element that needed to be in place, they determined, was that the violation be perceived as relatively benign.

Take tickling, for example, one of the very few things that almost universally elicits laughter across cultures and even species. Tickling is a violation of social norms and personal space. If you’re approached on the street by a stranger with outstretched fingers, it’s upsetting. But if the tickler is a friend, it’s benign. Hence, the giggles.

“You see this lead to laughter not just across humans but in primates, and some people would argue that it occurs in rats too,” said Warren, now an assistant professor of marketing at Texas A&M University.

The authors also point to puns as an example of acceptable violations of linguistic norms. “Nice buns,” to a baker, is (at least mildly) funny. “Nice bread” isn’t a violation. “Nice ass” isn’t benign.

Their formula explains why humor varies so widely across cultures. Societies have vastly differing perceptions of what’s benign and what constitutions a social violation.

It also explains why we don’t all find the same things funny. Someone who has felt the damaging effects of racism will not see jokes trafficking in racial stereotypes as benign. The misogynist who laughs at women in a violent or demeaning situation, on the other hand, sees it as harmless fun.

In a milder example, Warren and McGraw offered in a 2015 PNAS paper the hypothetical scenario of someone audibly passing gas at a formal family dinner. It’s not considered a violation by the baby gurgling in its high chair, who doesn’t yet know what’s considered polite behavior. It’s not benign to the parents trying to impress a dinner guest.

And yet to the 8-year-old at the table, it’s the pinnacle of humor—and, if we’re being honest, to a lot of people older than that.