What’s Funny About That?

kitten and dogs

On a recent lazy Sunday morning as my sweetie and I were sipping coffee in bed, I glanced through the email on my iPad with the vague intention of clearing out my overflowing email inbox.  As I ruthlessly pressed delete for any number of ads and notifications, I noticed that a friend with a quirky sense of humor had sent me a link to a video. I was tempted to zap it—let’s just say that his sense of humor and mine are often a mismatch.  But the alarmed expression on the young woman’s face on the video screen pulled me in, so I clicked on the arrow.  During the next few minutes I laughed so hard that I cried—and just about spilled my coffee.  I’ve watched the video several times since then and shared it with friends.  I continue to laugh just thinking about it. Now I’m interested in why I’m laughing because we can all use more laughter in our lives, right? 

What was so funny?  A crew of technical experts set up an elaborate prank in a New York coffee shop, a prank not unlike the old You’re on Candid Camera setups but much more sophisticated.  The video showed the preparations for fooling people and then showed in quick succession the expressions and body language of the people who were targeted by the prank.  They were amused at first and curious, then they were surprised, then they were shocked, then they were incredulous, and in the end most everyone was frightened to the point of actually getting up and running away.  You can see the video here (it is actually an ad for a remake of the movie, Carrie): http://www.youtube.com/embed/VlOxlSOr3_M?feature=player_embedded.

Fear, it turns out, can be elicited easily enough, even among a young, savvy group of New Yorkers just beginning a routine day in the big city. Although actors were used in the setup—customers who sat in the coffee shop and began an argument over spilled coffee—there is no mistaking the expressions on the faces of those real customers who unwittingly entered the shop and ordered their cappuccinos and bagels on a morning they expected to be like any other.  One young woman had her phone camera out and tried to take a picture until she, too, quickly backed away in fright.  The two-and-a-half-minute video is a great study in how emotions show up in our facial expressions and body language.    

I’m interested in these visible expressions of emotions, and I teach them in workshops and in an online course as part of being more aware of others’ emotions. The eminent psychologist, Paul Ekman has shown that no matter where you go in this world (and he even went to remote villages untouched by western civilization), people recognize at least seven “universal” facial expressions.  Recognizing and being sensitive to others’ emotional expressions is a major aspect of Emotional Intelligence, and it is possible to learn how to better understand how people feel by learning about what is revealed in their expressions and in the ways they hold or move their bodies. 

But I’m even more curious about why I find watching this video and the frantic fright and flight of the coffee shop customers—funny! Is it some sadistic streak that I keep hidden from myself—I who like to think of myself as kind and empathetic?  Does my enjoyment come from the fact that I’m “in” on the joke whereas the customers are not?  How is it that the designers of this elaborate prank have so exactly touched my funny bone?  Because I’m aware that humor helps us cope with pain, stress, and adversity, and can help build a store of resilience, the experience of watching this video piqued my curiosity about what is funny.

I found a wonderful explanation on a TED talk by Peter McGraw, who describes himself as a full-time scholar and part-time adventurer.  He has developed what he calls the “benign violation theory” to explain what makes things funny.  The meaning of the word “violation” is simply anything that threatens the way you think the world ought to be—in other words, you sense that something is wrong in a situation.  If the violation is “malign”—someone gets hurt or there are other terrible consequences—we do not laugh.  When the violation is benign, however, we find it funny.  McGraw explains several ways to make a situation benign—when we do not take the violation seriously, when the situation is psychologically distant from us (it happens to someone else, it happened a long time ago, it is just too unreal), or when there is an alternative explanation (such as a “mock attack” like tickling). 

So—for a situation to be funny, there has to be some kind of threat, something that is “not right” according to our expectation of what is normal.  At the same time, the situation must be benign, although that concept is a bit more complicated (when someone else trips on the curb it is funnier than when you trip on the curb for example).  I have an eleven-month-old granddaughter who loves the “threat” of me crawling around the kitchen island to where she is crawling on the other side.  She hears me coming (I’m saying, “Where is Mia?”) and she is chortling with expectation, for although I am a sort of “threat” because I will catch her, she knows that I will simply scoop her up with a hug and a kiss.  Even a baby finds humor in a situation that is a violation but simultaneously benign.

The coffee shop video was funny for the same reason.  Because I was in on the joke, I knew that the situation was absolutely benign.  The actors weren’t really angry, the coffee that was spilled on a computer didn’t matter, and the telekinetic consequences (the offending coffee spiller was thrown against the wall and rose several feet upwards when the “victim” simply waved her hand at him!) were all staged.  But the looks on the faces of the innocent bystanders was absolutely priceless—and extremely funny. 

I loved being able to laugh so hard!  My work in Emotional Intelligence has helped me realize how much humor can help us live with greater balance and well-being.  Adding humor to our lives can help us add positivity, improve interpersonal relationships, and build resilience—all aspects of Emotional Intelligence.  Fortunately, Peter McGraw has some ideas for living a more humorous life.  You may want to look at his TED video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysSgG5V-R3U) or visit his blog (http://blog.petermcgraw.org/). Here’s to more humor, laughter, and fun in your life!