Professor answers the question: Why is gross-out humor so funny?

By | May 31, 2011 at 9:54 am | 2 comments | News

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.

About the Author

Dave Emrich

While not slaving away and working his fingers to the bone for Laughspin, Dave plays drums with his band Mark It Zero. He also writes comedy and is a frequent tweets @daveemrich. Dave is a huge fan of video games, rye and exotic meats – he also sets a DVR because The Daily Show airs too late for his infantile sleeping habits. Dave works in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada in Marketing and Advertising and thinks OJ was guilty.

  • michael

    not only do you not need scientific research for several of his claims, a lot of his claims can’t be researched.

    his grand unifying theory is basically a post hoc analysis of humor saying that people laugh at things to signal that it looks “dangerous” to something, but they know it’s not. you know, like those dangerous puns and those “violations” of common sense in dilbert cartoons (which, i’ve been told, some people laugh at.)

    you ask what violations a pun imposes, and mcgraw’s theory can just plug in some expectation that wasn’t met.

    in other words, people laugh at jokes if the humor takes them by surprise. his theory hasn’t added anything substantial to the field of humor analysis.

  • The Comedy Bureau

    1) It is a common maxim in comedy that tragedy over time equals comedy. Perhaps, I have a decidedly dark sense of humor, but there were tsunami jokes made about 2 days after the disaster struck Japan that were funny. I attribute this to them being well written and clever, and not completely reliant on “that’s so fucked up” factor that most gross-out humor relies on.

    2) Peter McGraw and the Humor Research Lab are trying to figure something that can’t really be figured. He has the idea that all jokes stem from something called “benign violation” and cites that people inexplicably laugh while being tickled even though they’re having the personal space violated. I agree with Louis CK when McGraw interviewed him as CK reasoned that there are too many type of jokes for that to be the sole explanation of all jokes.

    3) Inglorious Basterds is not a comedy. If anything it’s an overwrought essay on what Michael Bay has done to the landscape of postmodern cinema. The argument can be made that $320 million was made purely off of how violent it was. It’s not a valid example when discussing the matter of grossing people out and making them laugh.

    4) I remember reading something about McGraw’s research and how it could have prevented the fiasco with their Superbowl commercial. I always wondered how the hell didn’t they realize that was going to bomb miserably. Ask most comedic performers of any background, at any level, about that commercial and they would have told you that it wouldn’t have worked. You didn’t need scientific research for that.

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