In either ninth or tenth grade, my friend Dan and I found a book of “Truly Tasteless Jokes” on the cafeteria floor. Our teenage psyches were quickly mesmerized, and we spent the majority of lunch reading it cover to cover. I laughed at one dead baby joke in particular (which I can’t repeat here). It involved a blender.
To see if I was a psychopath for taking delight in dead babies, I asked the cartoons editor for the New Yorker, Bob Mankoff, for his opinion. He’s had plenty of time to ruminate on what makes a good joke, and he assured me that I was not a psychopath. Louis C.K., he points out, often gets giggles from depraved thoughts. He has a joke where he asks the audience to consider the love child molesters must have for molesting children, given the punishment if caught. “It asks us to consider what is in the mind of a child molester,” says Mankoff. “He’s asking us to understand the things that drive them.” Watching the clip, you can almost feel the audience’s guilt as they laugh.
Dark jokes often force listeners to consider new perspectives. By doing that, Mankoff says, offensive jokes could be like trial runs for true adversity. He likens their psychological affront to a challenge to the cellular immune system: Experiencing small doses of negative emotions, elicited by an offensive joke, may make us more resilient to future, more serious set backs. And may even help us realize we were perhaps mistaken to be offended in the first place. Of course, he says, “you should only tell them if they’re really good.”
Dark humor is sort of oxymoronic that way. Child molestation, deadly car crashes, and genocide are among the most awful parts of the human experience. Yet we laugh at pointed jokes about wicked Catholic priests and Princess Di(e), and use hashtags like #Lolocaust when something is so funny a mere “lol” wouldn’t do. Why?
Peter McGraw, a behavioral scientist at the University of Colorado, Boulder, has been trying to answer this question, among others, since 2008. In that time, he’s developed what he calls the “benign violation” theory. “Most of the time we don’t think tragedies are funny. It’s only in a very rare circumstance that they actually are amusing,” says McGraw. “There has to be something there that makes this situation ok, acceptable, safe, benign.” That something, he says, is psychological distance.
Survey respondents reported that stubbing a toe was more likely to be humorous if it happened yesterday than 5 years ago, whereas the opposite was true for getting hit by a car.
Time is one of form of distance. “Too soon!” for instance, is a common refrain in response to jokes made immediately on the heels of tragedy. But according to the benign violation theory, time isn’t the only one. Physical distance, hypotheticality, and social distance can also remove us far enough from a threat to render it humorous. Satire, for instance, places the obviously wrong in a kosher guise (like when Jonathan Swift argued in A Modest Proposal that the Irish poor should, to ease their financial woes, sell their children as food for the higher classes).
While it might seem obvious that being further from a tragedy would increase the odds that it seems funny, McGraw’s research has suggested that too much psychological distance can blunt a joke’s hilarity. Take Hurricane Sandy, for example. In 2012, as the storm approached, someone decided to make the hurricane a Twitter account, and tweet as if he or she were Sandy. Before, during, and after Sandy pummeled the United States, McGraw and his team asked people to rate the funniness of Sandy’s tweets.
When Hurricane Sandy was still over the ocean—a hypothetical threat—humor ratings were high. However, once things got real—with first-hand accounts of suffering and damage—the tweets lost some of their hilarity. The psychological distance was too small. But then, as time passed, humor ratings rose, reaching a peak 36 days after the storm before dropping off again, as the hurricane’s memory faded and became not-threatening-enough.
McGraw says the results lend credence to the benign violation theory: When enough time elapsed to soften the hurricane’s menace, but not so much that it lost its edge entirely, the tweets became funnier. In previous studies, McGraw and his colleagues have shown that the amount of psychological distance required to make a threat funny varies, quite intuitively, with the threat’s severity—the severer the threat, the more psychological distance you need to laugh. Survey respondents reported, for instance, that stubbing a toe was more likely to be humorous if it happened yesterday than 5 years ago, whereas the opposite was true for getting hit by a car.
When Dan and I found the joke book in our high school cafeteria, I had only just acquired the requisite physiology to procreate; and due to my limited (nonexistent) opportunity to engage in the child-forming ritual, a baby was still so far over the horizon that it seemed like it could safely be called “never.” Psychological distance from babies, in other words, was at a maximum.
But then one night two summers ago, I logged into Facebook to discover that two of my friends had just watched their son die a few hours after birth. In that moment, dead babies rocketed across psychological space from some infinitely distant locale and into my bedroom. I have not found dead baby jokes to be terribly funny ever since.
David Shultz is a freelance journalist covering biology and science of all sorts. Follow him on Twitter @dshultz14.