The Perfect Joke

August 10, 2010

Brit Trogen


It's a problem that scientists were bound to tackle sooner or later: what's the secret to the perfect joke? As the ultimate social equalizer, there's really no better way to focus the energies of the smart and socially awkward than humor. 


The basis of true comedy is the target of a study performed by researchers at the University of Colorado-Boulder, who were curious about why topics as seemingly taboo as bestiality, incest and murder could nevertheless succeed in producing a chuckle. Do you find this funny? How about this one? What is it about comedy—crude or clean—that is so universally appealing? 


After presenting scenarios of varying levels of hilarity to volunteers, researchers A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren believe they have identified the golden rules of general humor. To be worthy of lulz, a joke must be simultaneously in violation of societal norms and relatively benign, making it therefore reconcilable. The first criterion, violation of a norm—like a turtle humping a shoe for example—probably acts as a form of tension release, explaining why something like having sex with a donkey or a corpse, while repulsive (to some...), can still seem funny in certain situations.


The second, that it be benign, is a bit more complicated. It could explain why a joke centering around the Holocaust or 9/11 might always fall flat; to the person listening, there's always an element of true harm in the humor. In contrast, slapstick humor, or a joke that clearly doesn't involve real-world harm, can get by simply by allowing the audience to suspend their disbelief. Since we know that no one is truly being harmed by the joke, we're able to just laugh. Or so the study goes.


So, now you know! You're free to go ahead and produce the ultimate joke, the one that will be so lethally funny that on hearing it, the listener will die of laughter. Of course, if it still doesn't work, it's probably just your timing.



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