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When Bad Things Become Funny

Humor experts set out to discover when tragedies are fine to joke about, and when they're not

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Joking about a tragedy shortly after it happens is usually a comedic no-no, as proven by the boos and shouts of “Too soon!” when comedian Gilbert Gottfried tried to joke about 9/11 in 2001 and, more recently, when comedian Jeffrey Ross brought up the shootings in Aurora, Colorado, in one of his routines. Yet at times, joking about tragedy can be ok, even if it is shortly after the event. The Onion ran a satirical 9/11 story two weeks after the terrorist attacks, which was successfully received.

Researchers puzzling over this inconsistency set out to discover when tragedies are fine to joke about and when they’re not. In the journal Psychological Science, psychologists from the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder, explored how two elements come together to facilitate humor: how “bad” an event is—ranked from a severe to mild violation—and how removed an audience is from that event.

To measure this, the researchers performed five different experiments. First, they looked into the effect of psychological distance in terms of time by asking participants to describe events in their lives that either became more or less funny as time passed. Participants rated the event’s severity, and the researchers found that the more severe events became funnier over time compared to the more minor violations.

In a second experiment, participants reported a severe violation, like being hit by a car, as funnier if it happened several years go, while a mild violation, like stubbing a toe, was funnier if it happened very recently.

In testing how social distance impacts humor, the researchers found that students thought it was funnier if a stranger accidentally donated $1,880 over a text message—a severe violation—than if a friend made the same mistake. But if the donation was smaller, say, $50, the students thought this mild violation was a funnier blooper if a friend made the mistake rather than someone they didn’t know.

Psychological distance came into play in the fourth experiment. Students looked at weird images, like a man with a finger coming out of his eye or with a guy with a frozen beard, which the researchers said were either digitally manipulated or real. The students found the less disturbing images to be funnier if they were real, while the increasingly disturbing images ranked as more humorous if the students thought they were fake.

Finally, the researchers examined the effect of physical distance on humor. They manipulated the strange photos from the previous experiment to make it look like the images the pictures depicted were closer or farther to the viewer. The participants found more disturbing images to be funnier if they were farther away, while the less disturbing ones were funnier if seen from up close.

The researchers say the five studies confirm that space, time, social relationships and hypotheticality must combine to create a “sweet spot” in order for a comedic spin on tragedy to be well received. The Onion’s post-9/11 story, “God Angrily Clarifies Don’t Kill Rule,” successfully found that humor niche, poking fun at the terrorists rather than the victims, and inspiring some healthy laughter amidst an otherwise dark time.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Finding Humor in History 
Science Humor: Anti-Inspirational Humor 

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