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Understanding Unintentional Comedy

09/17/2012 12:08 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2012

A few months ago, Pete received an email from Nick Justicz (a comedy aficionado who has worked alongside comedians at The Comedy Store), which commented on his humor research. One part of his email stood out:

I was watching the great film "The Pianist" the other day with some friends (light movie night I know!) and there is a scene in which the SS throw a Jewish man in a wheelchair out a window. Interestingly, I noticed this horrific scene caused a few of my friends to laugh -- only to instantly regret laughing later. I looked up the scene on YouTube, only to see that there were lots of people who laughed, only to have others condemn it. I didn't laugh when I saw the scene, but somehow upon watching it I understood the instinct.

He asked Pete why this was the case, but instead of answering the question, Pete sent Nick a couple of papers (this one in particular), and asked if he wanted to write about what he read. Here is Nick's excellent response:

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Humor and the Pianist

While watching Roman Polanski's "The Pianist" -- his biographical film about a Jewish man and his struggle to survive the Holocaust -- chances are we aren't expecting to find humor, much less to laugh. The movie is filled with countless atrocities and horrific events. Take, for instance, the scene in which the German SS throw a disabled man out a window to his death:

As I watched this movie with some friends a few months ago, I noticed a couple things. Most people showed disgust during this sequence, but some people -- a vocal minority -- laughed.

While it's easy to rush to judgment and call those people insensitive or immature, it would be irresponsible to do so without an analysis of the situation. After showing the scene to several friends and reading YouTube comments of the video, I found out that many people found this scene humorous. Laughing was not an exceptional circumstance, but rather a common reaction.

Chances are we have all laughed at something we were not "supposed to" laugh at. Maybe repressing laughter makes us more prone to it. All that being said, doesn't laughing at the gruesome death of a disabled man still seem odd? What is it about the way this scene is constructed that causes some of us to feel disgusted and some of us to laugh?

To help me answer this question, I turned to noted humor expert Peter McGraw, who researches at the University of Colorado at Boulder and helped develop the Benign Violation Theory (BVT) of humor. Professor McGraw kindly forwarded me a couple research papers and asked that I try to answer the question myself in the spirit of thoughtful discussion. Not only is the professor saving time, but I get to learn more in the process. Touché, professor, touché!

So without further ado, here is my analysis of this scene of "The Pianist", and how one might find it humorous according to BVT.

Analysis -- A Healthy Distance

Benign Violation Theory is simple in its hypothesis, and it will help us explain how one could interpret this scene from "The Pianist" as humorous:

The benign-violation hypothesis suggests that three conditions are jointly necessary and sufficient for eliciting humor: A situation must be appraised as a violation, a situation must be appraised as benign, and these two appraisals must occur simultaneously. (McGraw, Warren 1142)

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Simple but effective!

Applying the theory to the above scene, the question now becomes: how is this situation a violation? How is it benign? And how does it occur simultaneously?

The first part of this question -- analyzing the violation -- is much easier to answer. During the scene in question, our protagonist looks on as the German SS kill a man in cold blood right across the street. Firstly this is a physical violation. A man is being killed physically close to our hero, and for all he knows he could be next. Secondly, senseless killing of any kind is a moral violation that is widely held belief, including (presumably) the protagonist and those watching the film.

The second part of the question -- analyzing how this scene is benign, is much more difficult to answer. Turning back to the work of McGraw and Warren:

A violation can seem benign if (a) a salient norm suggests that something is wrong but another salient norm suggests that it is acceptable, (b) one is only weakly committed to the violated norm, or (c) the violation is psychologically distant. (McGraw, Warren 1142)

Intuitively, it is safe to saw that those who laughed felt "psychologically distant" from the violation. While it is possible that for some reason those who laughed thought the violation was "acceptable" (a), I doubt that such a large number of people would think that murder is inherently OK. Furthermore, I doubt this group of people is only "weakly committed" to the taboo of murder (b), so it's probable that those who found the scene humorous did not feel psychologically involved in the film.

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"The Pianist": not a comedy

What would cause some viewers to feel psychologically distant and others not to? A couple ideas come to mind. Most obviously, those watching the film are a safe distance from the tragedy, very likely at home on a comfortable sofa. Even the protagonist in the film is physically separated from the events that are going on. It's the viewer's choice to be involved with the film or not.

Furthermore, the director made several choices that could potentially make the situation seem benign. The victim in the scene made no physical or audible sign of panic. In fact, he seems very calm. The aggressors (the SS) did not use threatening weapons like guns or batons. The victim's death did not include any physical altercation between people, or for that matter any sign of blood. Perhaps the situation seemed so extreme to viewers -- putting Nazis against a man in a wheelchair is almost Tarantino-esque -- that many did not feel it was real. All of these elements could make a viewer feel physiologically distant from the tragic situation.

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"Pulp Fiction" contains murder scenes constructed to be funny

It bears repeating that not all people found this scene humorous; in fact, most did not. It is my hypothesis that those who did laugh felt psychologically distant from the tragic situation because they interpreted it as benign. This interpretation is most likely due to the scene not containing traditional signs of physical violation like panic, weapons, and spacial proximity.

Viewers who interpreted this aberration as benign felt distanced and were likely to laugh. Conversely, viewers who did not see this aberration as distancing also did not see the situation as benign, and therefore did not laugh.

Conclusion -- Modes of Viewership

A friend of mine told me that he thinks Polanski made mistakes in directing this scene. He said that if the director made more careful decisions in the editing room, viewers would not have felt as distanced from this scene and therefore would not have found it as humorous.

I don't disagree with this argument, but I also believe that audience members have a responsibility as well. I believe that it is an audience's responsibility not to distance themselves from a film as they watch it. Distancing oneself from a movie makes it less risky (detachment is trendy these days) because we are less prone to negative emotions like horror and disgust. However, it is also much less rewarding. Choosing to distance oneself from a film is tantamount to not listening to someone in a conversation. It's one's prerogative to do so, sure, but it undermines the whole mode of communication.

While there is no "wrong" way to watch a movie, viewers have an important choice in how they interpret them. I would humbly advise those who watch "The Pianist" -- or any movie for that matter -- to invest themselves fully into the situation. It might be harder to watch, and you might not laugh as much, but actually listening to what the director is trying to say will inevitably be a much more rewarding experience.

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Read the paper:

McGraw, A.P., Warren, C., Williams, L., & Leonard, B., (2012). Too close for comfort, or too far to care? Finding humor in distant tragedies and close mishaps. Psychological Science.25. 1-9.

Humor is ubiquitous and often beneficial, but the conditions that elicit it have been debated for millennia. We examine two factors that jointly influence perceptions of humor: the degree to which a stimulus is a violation (tragedy vs. mishap) and one's perceived distance from the stimulus (far vs. close). Five studies show that tragedies (which feature severe violations) are more humorous when temporally, socially, hypothetically, or spatially distant, but that mishaps (which feature mild violations) are more humorous when psychologically close. Although prevailing theories of humor have difficulty explaining the interaction between severity and distance revealed in these studies, our results are consistent with the proposal that humor occurs when a violation simultaneously seems benign. This benign-violation account suggests that distance facilitates humor in the case of tragedies by reducing threat, but that closeness facilitates humor in the case of mishaps by maintaining some sense of threat. We discuss implications of our results for theories of humor and psychological distance.

Professor Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner have embarked on the Humor Code, an around-the-world exploration of what makes things funny. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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