Looking for comedy’s sweet spot: Study puts ‘tragedy plus time’ to test

Electronic sign reads "Frankenstorm is coming!"

There’s an old saying that “comedy equals tragedy plus time” – but is it really true? According to a study co-authored by a Texas A&M University professor, more time doesn’t necessarily equal more humor. Instead, the study reveals a temporal comedy “sweet spot” that if found, may get entertainers and advertisers the most laughs.

The study, “The Rise and Fall of Humor: Psychological Distance Modulates Humorous Responses to Tragedy,” was published in Social Psychological and Personality Science. In it, Caleb Warren, professor of marketing at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School, and two University of Colorado-Boulder professors, Peter McGraw, professor of marketing and psychology, and Lawrence Williams, professor of marketing, asked people to evaluate Hurricane Sandy jokes posted on Twitter before, during and after the storm devastated New York and New Jersey.

The researchers found that humorous responses to Sandy’s destruction rose, peaked, and eventually fell over the course of 100 days, and explain their findings using what they call the “benign violation theory.”

“The basic idea behind the theory is that people experience humor when they perceive something that threatens their well-being, identity, or normative belief structure but they simultaneously perceive the threat to be baseless, inconsequential, or benign,” Warren explains.

He says when it came to Hurricane Sandy jokes on social media, “People found the jokes funniest before the hurricane, because at this point the hurricane posed a threat (i.e., violation) but had not yet caused damage or harm (i.e., was benign). After the hurricane hit, the jokes initially seemed less humorous. As weeks passed and repair (both physical and mental) was under way, people started to find the jokes about the hurricane more humorous.”

But then, he notes, as weeks turned into months, “the hurricane became a distant memory, no longer posing a threat and the jokes about the storm became less funny again.”

The hurricane study builds on previous work done by Warren and his team members which began for Warren while he was a Ph.D. student at the University of Colorado. “My co-author, Peter McGraw, and I were originally curious about why many things that seemed ‘messed up’ or morally wrong could also seem funny,” he explains.

What they found was that psychological distance – either temporal (now vs. then), spatial (here vs. there), social (self vs. other), and hypothetical (real vs. imagined) – allowed for people to find humor in tragedy. They examined this notion in their 2012 study “Too Close for Comfort, or Too Far to Care? Finding Humor in Distant Tragedies and Close Mishaps,” published by Psychological Science.

“The idea that humor results from benign violations sparked a few novel hypotheses about when people experience humor, one of which relates to how psychological distance, including the passage of time, influences humor,” Warren notes. “When something bad happens, people initially perceive a violation, but they don’t experience humor because the violation isn’t benign. Over time, however, people start to cope with the bad event and are thus able to see it as benign, which can increase humor. The passage of additional time, however, can cause people to no longer care or to completely forget about the event thereby obscuring the violation and reducing the humor perceived in the now irrelevant event.”

Warren says their findings hold implications for how and when advertisers, comedians and other entertainers should joke about a topic. “Negative events can be a ripe source for humor provided that enough time has passed that people have largely coped with the event, but not so much time has passed that they’ve completely put the event out of their mind.”

Finding humor in tragedy is also a healthy coping skill, Warren adds. “People’s capacity for transforming pain into a source of pleasure is critical for developing a psychological immune system. Humor in the face of adversity is important for our overall psychological well-being.”

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