Humor Sapiens

The laughing ape and other insights into the nature of funny.

When do Tragedies Become Funny?

Why do some people find tragic events funny and when?

After the terror attacks on 9/11, there was a sense that comedy had died and we would never be able to laugh again. Comedians were baffled, comedy clubs closed, and no one knew when they would reopen. Late-night talk-show hosts literally stopped telling jokes, and the sentiment was that nothing would be the same again. As we all know, comedy did not die, and though it took a while, comedians slowly got their acts together. Over the years, there were even jokes about 9/11 (you can Google them yourself). This seems to confirm what Mark Twain famously quipped: “Humor is tragedy plus time.”

People seem to regularly find some tragedies and other mishaps in life funny, but there are many variables involved in the transformation of tragedy into laughter. As Erma Bombeck once said, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” Why do so many people find tragedies and misfortune to be funny, and what makes it so?

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My friend and colleague Peter Mcgraw (who also writes a blog here on PT), with the collaboration of the members in his humor lab at the University of Colorado at Boulder, went to find an answer. In a recently published article, they tried uncover the roots of this seemingly oxymoronic phenomenon. They conducted a series of studies that looked at the various conditions in which tragedy can result in laughter.

The core of the theory is that the time that elapses since the tragedy is not the only consideration but also how closely the tragedy hits home, and how severe it is. In other words, distance can be measured in both time and space. The main idea is that small tragedies, or mishaps (what the authors call benign violations), are more likely to generate humor if they happened to you or to a close friend. On the other hand, large misfortunes are funnier when they are inflicted on other people.

In one study, subjects had to recall an event that either was increasing or decreasing in funniness over time, and rate how upsetting or disturbing the event was. The results show that for severe events, ones that make you very upset, the level of funniness increases over time (compared to how funny they found it on the day it happened). But for small mishaps, things were less and less funny as time passed.

Think about the difference between being hit by a car (very upsetting) to stubbing your toe (not very upsetting). If you were hit by a car, you would not be prone to find it funny immediately, probably because it took a physical and emotional toll on you. But over time, when you are more detached from the situation, you can look back and find the whole accident to be funny. On the other hand, if you had a non significant injury to your toe, it might seem funny at first, but this feeling will wane in the long run. That is exactly what the researchers found. Ninety-nine percent of the subjects thought a car accident occurring five years ago would be funnier today than it was on the day of the accident, while only 18% thought that an injury to the toe would be funnier five years later.

Now, imagine that you found out that your best friend accidentally “donated” $50 to the relief efforts in Haiti by pressing the wrong button on her cell phone. Would you find it hilarious? What if it was $2000 instead? As expected, people found the small donation of a good friend funnier, because it was less severe and didn’t have major financial repercussions. But what if the same scenario happened to a complete stranger? In this case, the effect reverses itself, and if you are like most people, you will find it to be funnier. So when a stranger donates a ridiculous amount of money by accident, no one close is hurt, and the story is amusing. The closer the person is to you, small mistakes or accidents will tend to evoke more laughter, probably because the consequences are not too serious, while big mishaps take their toll (as we saw, at least for the short time, maybe in a year you can laugh about it, too). Mel Brooks summed it up best: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

Other experiments also showed that when people see a picture of someone they believe is really hurt (finger poking through his eye, see below), they tend to judge it as less funny compared to when they think it is fake, or compared to a minor injury.

This study very eloquently shows the myriad conditions in which tragedies can evoke humor, but there are still some unanswered questions. For example, Jews in concentration and death camps during World War II created jokes that made fun of the Nazis and their own situation. This kind of humor seems to violate the premise that we need to distance ourselves either in time or from the people involved, or that the severity of the event needs to be mild, in order to find such horrors funny. Why does this happen?

It is possible that when we are overwhelmed by tragic events, when we reach deep misery, and our suffering is so dire, we feel completely helpless, unable to change the realities surrounding us. In these situations, humor is a useful tool as a defense mechanism. We are so overpowered by pain, unable to contain it or process it at the present time, that we seek relief. Maybe, as Chaya Ostrower, who wrote a book about humor during the Holocaust claimed, Jews did not have control of the physical reality around them, so instead of feeling helpless about it, they tried changing their internal feelings. Humor played a big role in that change and gave them a break from the horrifying reality around them. It is interesting to note that some people do not feel it is appropriate to tell Holocaust jokes (or 9/11 jokes), so time itself sometimes does not enable us to laugh at everything. Either way, tragedies and humor will probably continue to go hand in hand for many of us.

Gil Greengross, Ph.D., is a psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Mexico.

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