MSNBC’s The Body Odd blog has published an article about the psychology and science of why gross-out humor resonates with audiences.
Peter McGraw, assistant professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder says, “humor is elicited by the perception of something that seems to be unsettling, threatening, wrong, scary or anger-inducing.” McGraw, who co-authored a study on why we laugh at images that are morally offensive or wrong argues that, “of course, things that are wrong usually make us upset. So at the same time that something is seen as a violation, it also has to be seen as benign — that it is, in some way, OK or acceptable.”
His research showed that the user has to feel a sense of “psychological distance” from the offensive material, generally through the situation being completely absurd, or having happened a long time ago.
The demographic most difficult to offend? Young males. Comedian Alonzo Bodden says that, “it’s the frat humor, it all goes back to Animal House and Stripes.”
The study makes a fairly straightforward and obvious claim. It’s clear that one must be separated from a situation to be able to laugh at it. Look at the success of movies like Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which resonated with audiences to the tune of $320 million. The World War II and Nazi subject matter of the film would not have been anywhere near appropriate had this film been made in the 50’s. But, enough time has passed that audiences are separated from the “serious aspect” of the films subject matter and as a result are comfortable to laugh at the absurdity of things like killing Hitler by obliterating his face with machine guns.
On the flip side, look at the situation of former Aflac duck Gilbert Gottfried. His offensive joke tweets made only days after the earthquake and tsunami in Japan had him quickly fired and viewed as a comic who made jokes “too soon.” This is because audiences viewed the devastation in Japan as something that they are still being affected by and they had not yet separated from the situation.
You should check out the full article on MSNBC here.