There is no humor code! Why the Algorithmic Assumption is the opposite of scholarship

Well now this is annoying.

A while back I wrote about an article in Salon claiming that researchers had cracked “The Charisma Code.”  A simple “cognitive explanation,” reducible to a cocktail napkin formula of the kind so beloved by precocious undergrads, had been proposed to explain the entire phenomenon.

Now I read that new research is making a (from the headline) “Serious attempt to crack the humor code.”

The idea being that things are funny because they violate us benignly.  No, I’m not making that up.  And yes, one could wonder whether anything that’s benign could actually count as a violation, but …

… look …

I spent years in grad school researching the nature of humor under the tutelage of Victor Raskin, one of the leading thinkers in the field, and there’s nothing wrong with the theory that the subject of the article, “comedy scientist” Peter McGraw, is putting forward.  Although … “comedy scientist?”  Really?

(A more precise term might be “associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder.”)

In fact the basic idea behind “benign violation” as the engine that powers comedy goes back at least as far as Santayana, who proposed that humor comes from the juxtaposition of two unrelated concepts in the same idea.  Which is to say … as with so much research breathlessly reported on by the media … this new research isn’t new.  It isn’t even really research, to the extent that it’s pretty derivative precisely because it hasn’t done its homework on what came before.

But again, it’s not wrong per see … it’s certainly a model that fits a lot of cases.  As per the article:

The benign violation theory proposes a very simple alternative recipe for humor: start with something perfectly normal, then taint it with little violating details, the way Jerry Seinfeld injects bits of horror into ordinary situations. Or start with something that’s obviously wrong and find a way to make it OK, the way Sarah Silverman does by turning possibly insulting rants into cutesy stories. Moving too far in either direction runs the risk of boring or offending, but aiming for that sweet spot in the middle has a number of practical applications, says McGraw.


By “practical applications,” one assumes he means jokes.

As a derivative theory it’s also much less refined than Raskin’s own semantic mechanics of humor, which note that the two “scripts” involved in the humor must both be legitimate interpretations of the speech act and that the transition from one to the other must move the listener from one “mode” of communication (so called “bona fide communication”) to the next (humor).  Blah blah blah details details details.  Nobody who isn’t really interested in the field has to get all that stuff.

But what isn’t an academic detail is that Raskin was only claiming to explain a very limited subset of humor (text based “verbal humor”), and wasn’t claiming to be generative – that is to say, he was saying that in a very narrow set of circumstances, his work adequately documented what was happening in this kind of humor, but wasn’t going to help you make actual jokes.  A was a “description,” not a “code.”

By contrast McGraw (or at least the media representation of McGraw … which I’m inclined to believe given that he presented at SXSW and is a Professor of Marketing … er … excuse me, “marketing scientist”), is making a universal explanation for all humor – and claiming that his system will get you making jokes in no time.

The latter claim is probably true but trivial.  Let me quote from the article:

(McGraw) often fights with comics who feel he’s wrong to think he can “solve” for the root of humor, but he maintains even unfunny people can be trained to get funnier, the same as you can train a couch potato to best an active person at tennis, or help your neighbor’s ambitious but annoying tuba habit by sending them to music theory lessons.


Wait, what?   Is he saying that comedians don’t think you can better at comedy through practice?  That  the idea of a comedian refining his act by getting as much stage time as possible and going through his material again and again is unheard of?

Because in fact, they do think these things.  And if you want to be a formulaic comedian, inserting bits of horror into everyday situations or starting with horror and then finding a way to make it acceptable … sure, you can do that.  And if you practice at it, you can get better.  But so what?  There’s no trick to making formulaic comedians.  Or rather, it’s all trick.

Indeed, perhaps it’s worth noting that McGraw himself … for all his (ahem) “sophisticated” theorizing … has so far bombed at comedy.

“Let’s just say I couldn’t have done much worse,” he told the reporter. “If science can map the human genome, why can’t it crack the humor code?”

But THERE!  RIGHT THERE!  That’s the really problematic part!

The idea that the “benign violation” theory can possibly account for all forms of humor is incredibly naïve.  Sure, it mostly fits Sarah Silverman.  But what about New Yorker cartoons?  Does anyone ever feel violated by them?  What about when kids do something over and over again and it makes us laugh?  Do you really want to argue that what’s funny is that the kid engaged in an act of violation?  How about puns?  Are they “violating” the language?  How about in-jokes with your spouse? When Groucho says “I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member,” what’s the violation?  Are we really supposed to believe that’s funny because it contradicts logic or social norms?  Is his walk funny because it violates the norms of walking?  If so, then the category of “violation” is so broad as to be meaningless.

There are so many forms and manifestations of humor – the idea that they’re all reducible to a simple formula is itself laughable (and not because it’s a benign violation).  It’s a complicated, layered, phenomenon that manifests differently within and across cultures.  And anyone who’s really studied humor … like anyone who’s really studied charisma … would know how complicated the phenomenon is.

But instead there’s this assumption made by scientist and journalist alike that there must be a “humor code,” a “charisma code,” a code for consciousness – that any phenomenon is reducible to an algorithm that, once cracked, will explain everything.  A belief that all knowledge must be reducible to a grand unified theory fit for an undergraduate’s cocktail napkin, or a TED talk.  (Is there a difference?)

That assumption is not just wrongheaded – it makes the serious study of a subject far more difficult.  It cultivates sloppy habits of thinking.  It is hack theorizing to create a solution that (to quote H.L Mencken) is clear, simple, and wrong.  It is the opposite of scholarship.