Comic! Relieve Me!


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of Amnesty International UK.

“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people,” said Danish comedian, conductor, and pianist Victor Borge.

He spoke those words long before the 1993 study by Kuiper, Martin, and Olinger that showed humor is an instinctual device that relieves stressful situations; the 1986 study by Bell, McGhee, and Duffey that positively correlated humor to social competence in the eyes of others; and the 1985 study by Cohen and Wills showing a good sense of humor affects mental wellbeing by fostering social networks.

Borge determined through intuition what these and hundreds of other scientists determined through numbers: humor brings people together.

But how, and why?

Some research focuses on the neurological component of humor, like a team at Oxford who proved laughter significantly increases our pain threshold and hypothesize that’s because it releases endorphins. Thus, it brings us together because we are literally taking pleasure in one another.

Still others insist the key to understanding humor lies outside of a lab. Neuroscientist Dr. Robert Provine, PhD, reported on thousands of spontaneous instances of laughter he personally documented in his book, Laughter: A Scientific Investigation. He concluded laughter is much more about recognizing social cues and developing relationships than it is about something being objectively hilarious. Thus, it sustains our interpersonal relationships.

These studies focus on measurable results, but finding an overarching approach that objectively explains why something is funny is trickier. For example:

“Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, ‘My friend is dead! What can I do?’ The operator says ‘Calm down. I can help. First let’s make sure he’s dead.’ There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says ‘OK, now what?’”

Are you doubled over from laughter now? No?!

Well, in 2001, the now hugely popular psychologist Richard Wiseman and the British Association for the Advancement of Science founded the LaughLab and set about trying to determine the world’s funniest joke. Anyone could submit, and anyone could rate a random sample of those submissions on their “giggleability”. That joke was the winner.

There are a few key competing theories that seek to explain why we laugh at something like accidentally murdering a friend. They include the superiority theory from Plato and Aristotle (we laugh at the misfortune of others), the incongruity theory dating to the 18th century (we laugh when we’re led to believe one thing and something else occurs), and the relief theory that was popularized by Sigmund Freud (we laugh to relieve pent up tensions from repressed sexuality or oppressed thoughts).

More recently, the Benign Violation Theory (BVT) was proposed by Dr. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren. It states that humor arises when something seems like a violation and wrong, but is simultaneously benign or somehow okay.

Joel Warner, co-author of McGraw’s book The Humor Code, which explores the theory, tells BTR “each of the [other] theories work in some situations but not others. More importantly they don’t describe very well when things aren’t funny.”

Warner uses the example of when someone murders their mother-in-law in a fit of rage, it makes them feel superior. It is incongruent and it relieves tensions, but it is definitely not funny. BVT tells us why that is.

Warner and McGraw also investigated whether or not BVT translates cross-culturally.

“Our book,” Warner says, “is in some ways a science book masquerading as a travel log,” because they went all around the globe measuring the relevancy of the theory. They found that though “comedy” differs topically and, in some cases, even geographically from culture to culture, the yardstick for “humor” between oneself and friends or family is universal.

Warner gives the example of their time in Japan, where they found the country’s infrastructure for “comedy” relies entirely on one corporation, which teaches and licenses comedians. The system is vastly different from the US, where aspiring comics simply need bravery and a mic.

Japan also restricts their “comedy” to specific areas, omitting it from, say, bars and streets. However, when in the designated area (like a theater) their culture permits jokes on any topic, as opposed to in the US where certain subjects are considered taboo, even in revelry.

Yet in both countries, the social understanding of “humor” fits with BVT, proving humor has the ability not just to bring people together, but to bring together people of disparate backgrounds–provided it walks the line of benignity.

“My wife is German,” comedian Dave Deeble tells BTR, “so I have to go outside of the marriage for laughter.” Deeble chuckles and explains that in a room full of Anglos from various countries (Ireland, Switzerland, Germany, etc.) that joke always lands.

Deeble spent five years living and performing in Germany and, based on his experiences, agrees there’s an extent to which comedy unites. “The great thing about it is that it doesn’t matter if it’s inappropriate or even offensive, if it’s funny, it’s funny. Laughter is sort of a primal reaction, that comes before any filter.”

While touring, he also noticed audiences often act in a diluted mob mentality. If one person laughs, others join in. If no one laughs, people stay silent (though he’s learned that doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t enjoying the show). That kind of communal thinking also contributes to a shared experience, and it is powerful.


Dr. Dirk Wildgruber, from the University of Tuebingen in Germany, found that certain kinds of laughter light up brain regions associated with high level processing, activating reasoning and learning mechanisms. That means that, universally, laughter can be used to influence opinion.

When Deeble tells the joke about his German wife, he is calling attention to a stereotype and unifying a room of people under the ridiculousness of it. It’s what Jon Stewart, host of The Daily Show, does, and Mark Twain before him, and Jonathan Swift before him. If people learn when they laugh, then comedy has the ability to change people’s perspectives, break down cultural barriers, and create unexpected connections.

That is perhaps why Borge also said “humor is something that thrives between man’s aspirations and his limitations.There is more logic in humor than in anything else. Because, you see, humor is truth.”

For more on McGraw’s studies on humor and the funniest cities in the US, check out yesterday’s article “A Code for Humor“.