Opinion: deconstructing what we makes us laugh leads to some probing questions about jokes, puns and intentions

A boiled egg is hard to beat.

Whether we laughed or not, the humour of the above pun is easy to recognise. It relies on us understanding both meanings of the word "beat". This allows the sentence to contain the "correct" meaning, praising the merits of boiled eggs, and an "incorrect" meaning, complaining of the difficulty of whisking boiled eggs. This simple relationship is found across humour, where things generally have to contain some combination of right and not-right to be found funny. There is little humour in, for example, saying that boiled eggs are the best, or that rocks are hard to whisk. 

Humour researchers Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren capture this relationship, the paired right and not-right, in their "Benign Violation" theory .For something to be funny, they argue that it has to feature some sort of violation than the audience can make benign through a variety of means. This "violation" does not need to be serious. Puns, like the one above, are based on violations of language rules – using a word or phrase either incorrectly or outside of its usual context. The boiled egg which is hard to beat, for example, has both a sensible meaning and an absurd meaning. The bridge between the meanings is humour.

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Pete McGraw's TEDx talk on what is funny an what makes something funny as well

As mere violations of grammar rules, puns are easy to make innocuous. Jokes which target people, however, must also feature some form of violation, and a way for the audience to see that violation as harmless. For example, a clown slipping on a banana peel is funny because we understand that the clown isn’t actually in danger. The violation, or "wrongness" of the situation, comes from the potential danger. We can laugh because we recognise that it is merely an act.

But if someone slipped in front of us, laughing at their predicament would probably be treated as a faux-pas - at least, that is, until we are assured that they are unharmed. These situations can be funny in the future, when the harm is safely in the past. In fact, our funniest personal moments tend to have been less-than-funny in the moment we lived them. 

Moreover, the further we are from these incidents, the easier it is to make them benign. If, for example, you are unfortunate enough to slip on ice in front of a RTÉ news crew, you might wake up to find people laughing entire continents away. In the case of the clip below, the man's fall has potential to be funny not just because of the danger, but because it is also a violation of the seriousness one would usually expect from a news reel. This context also makes it benign because we assume that RTÉ would not have aired the footage had he been seriously injured.

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From RTÉ Archives, John Kilraine's RTÉ News report from 2010 on how freezing weather caused potential legal issues, water shortages and public attention for one unfortunate man who slips on an icy Dublin footpath. 

Context plays a large role in whether we interpret a violation as benign and, therefore, as humorous. It is easier, for example, for an Irish audience to laugh at a joke about Irish stereotypes when the comic is also Irish, as it will be easier to decide that their intention isn’t to degrade: they are laughing with the audience rather than at them. Perceived intention plays a significant role in humour.  

The stage on which the joke is made can also change how we receive it. For example, the popularity of Mrs Brown's Boys in Britain is contentious to some who suspect that audience to be laughing at, rather than with, O'Caroll’s performance of "stage" Irishness. This is also dependant on the political moment, as a negative stereotype of Irishness might not be considered benign when Anglo-Irish relations become strained, and the view of Ireland held by the British electorate comes under the microscope.

To allow the violation of potentially damaging jokes, we therefore have to decide that either no harm is done by the violation or, and more troublingly, decide that the victim is less worthy of our empathy. In relation to the latter, deciding that something is harmless isn't itself always harmless. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline in 2016, comedian Brendan O'Carroll talks about criticism of his work after Mrs Brown's Boys was voted the best sitcom of the 21st century by Radio Times' readers

These stakes are sharpened when we realise that humour not only reflects the power (im)balance of the world around us, but can worsen it. Humour is frequently used to exclude and denigrate, from schoolyard bullying to international politics. Laughing at something particularly victimising may, for example, be accomplished through finding the targeted person as unworthy of human dignity. A "benign violation" needs only be benign to the person laughing.

For example, when Boris Johnson compared Muslim women wearing burqas to "letterboxes", he was censured by the Muslim Council of Britain, who described the comments as "particularly regrettable in this current climate, where Islamaphobia and anti-Muslim hatred is becoming worryingly pervasive." The council's statement does not, therefore, argue that the joke wasn't funny due to the rules of humour – though Muslim women were quick to point out that the joke didn’t make sense due to Johnson mixing up the burka and niqab – but rather that it was not benign. This danger was not intrinsic to the joke, but due to the climate in which it was made. And the council’s concerns appear to have been proven valid, as the reporting of Islamaphobic hate crimes rose 375% following Johnson's comments, and "letterbox" now appears to be a constant in the vocabulary of Islamophobes.

Just as laughing at someone who has fallen won't protect them from injury, deciding that a joke is harmless to its targeted group of people doesn't make it so.

Humour frequently gets a pass as being innocent, even above reproach. Things we would not say in seriousness tend to be more permissible when wrapped in a joke. Presenting something as a joke may itself be enough for an audience to decide that it is benign. However, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that when we decide that a violation is benign, we are deciding for ourselves, not others. While doing so might be well intentioned, we may, indirectly, be merely giving implicit permission for future violations. Just as laughing at someone who has fallen won't protect them from injury, deciding that a joke is harmless to its targeted group of people doesn’t make it so.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ