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The laws of comedy

Wbanana.jpgThere are many theories about why we laugh at things. According to Freud we laugh to deal with unconscious anxieties. According to Bergson we laugh to punish outsiders. According to Little Britain we laugh at blokes in dresses.
But none of these theories holds good for all kinds of humour, a fault that psychologists at the University of Colorado have tried to rectify with the idea that what we laugh at are 'benign violations'.

Peter McGraw's and Caleb Warren's theory is that to provoke laughter something must be violated, a moral code say, but in a way which seems safe.
Their research found that we are much more likely to laugh at stories about behaviour we consider immoral. But also we are much more likely to find immoral behaviour amusing if we also consider it harmless.

They found that immorality is more funny if we have a safe psychological distance from it. They told a story about a church gaining members by raffling a car, and found that churchgoers disapproved as much as non-churchgoers, but were significantly less likely to find it funny.  

Violations could also be benign if they break one moral code while meeting another - such as a sex act on a raw chicken which is taboo while not causing harm.

Not all humour involves morality, but McGraw and Warren extend their theory even to puns, which violate the social contract of language, which is harmless enough unless you laugh your head off.