Menus Subscribe Search
comedy-mask

(PHOTO: ANDREY BURMAKIN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The Secret of Comedy Really Is Timing

• December 17, 2013 • 8:00 AM

(PHOTO: ANDREY BURMAKIN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

New research suggests we do find humor in tragedy, but only during a specific, limited window of time.

Did you hear the one about Hurricane Sandy? Did you find it hilarious? Tasteless? Or just lame?

Newly published research concludes the answer depends in part on exactly when the joke reached your ear, or inbox.

An analysis of responses to humorous quips referencing last year’s devastating storm suggests the adage that “comedy equals tragedy plus time” needs to be modified. A research team led by University of Colorado psychologist A. Peter McGraw concludes that, at some specific point in the days and weeks after a horrible event, there is a “sweet spot” when we’re particularly likely to find humor in the darkness.

“Transforming tragedy into comedy requires time—not too little, yet not too much,” the researchers write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“Humor arises when something that threatens a person’s well-being, identity, or normative belief structure simultaneously seems OK, safe, or acceptable.”

Their online study featured 1,064 people (mean age 31) recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. Surveys of approximately 100 individuals were taken at 10 different points in time: one day before Sandy hit the Northeastern U.S.; October 30, the day it made landfall; and periodically over the next three months (November 2, 7, 14, 21, and 28, December 5, January 2, and February 6).

All the participants were asked to respond to three Sandy-related tweets, including the following: “Jus blew da roof off a Olive Garden. Free Breadsticks 4 Everyone!” Among other things, they were asked to rate on a one-to-seven scale how funny, offensive, and boring they found it.

Not surprisingly, in the initial groups, people found it less funny as word spread of the storm’s devastation. “Humor was at a low point on November 14, 2012,” the researchers report.

However, “As time passed, it became OK to find humor in the tragedy, increasing the humor perceived in the tweets to a peak point on Dec. 5.”

After that, “Humorous responses to the tweets dropped again to another low point 99 days after the storm hit,” the researchers note. By that point, the quips came across as just as unfunny as they did the week of the tragedy.

McGraw and his colleagues argue these results provide evidence supporting the “benign violation theory” of humor. It states that “humor arises when something that threatens a person’s well-being, identity, or normative belief structure simultaneously seems OK, safe, or acceptable.”

Or to put it more simply: “Humor requires threat, but not too much, or too little.”

So if you fear an approaching hurricane could actually hurt you, your interests, or someone you love, there’s nothing funny about it. If the threat has safely passed, its potential to generate humor rapidly retreats.

But the moment when you feel you have dodged a bullet: That’s ripe for laughs.

Humor, McGraw and his colleagues write, is a great example of “the human capacity for taking a source of pain and transforming it into a source of pleasure.” (In that way, it’s like the blues.) This ability, they add, “is a critical feature of the psychological immune system.”

But their research shows this immune response only kicks in when we sense we’re safe, at least for the moment. It does not seem to work for long-running, slow-moving disasters.

Speaking of which, did you hear the one about the lousy economy and the Congress that refused to extend unemployment benefits?

Wait—too soon?

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

August 20 • 4:00 PM

Why Can’t Conservatives See the Benefits of Affordable Child Care?

Private programs might do a better job of watching our kids than state-run programs, but they’re not accessible to everyone.


August 20 • 2:00 PM

Oil and Gas Companies Are Illegally Using Diesel Fuel in Hundreds of Fracking Operations

An analysis by an environmental group finds hundreds of cases in which drillers used diesel fuel without obtaining permits and sometimes altered records disclosing they had done so.


August 20 • 12:00 PM

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?


August 20 • 10:00 AM

Death Row in Arizona: Where Human Experimentation Is the Rule, Not the Exception

Recent reports show that chemical roulette is the state’s M.O.


August 20 • 9:51 AM

Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.


August 20 • 8:40 AM

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.


August 20 • 8:00 AM

What the Cost of Raising a Child in America Tells Us About Income Inequality

You’ll spend nearly a quarter of a million dollars to raise a kid in the United States, or about five times the annual median income.


August 20 • 6:00 AM

In Praise of ‘American Greed’

While it remains semi-hidden on CNBC and can’t claim the car chases of Cops, American Greed—now with eight seasons in the books—has proven itself a worthy endeavor.


August 20 • 4:00 AM

Of Course I Behaved Like a Jerk, I Was Just Watching ‘Jersey Shore’

Researchers find watching certain types of reality TV can make viewers more aggressive.


August 20 • 2:00 AM

Concluding Remarks About Housing Affordability and Supply Restricitions

Demand, not supply, plays the dominant role in explaining the housing affordability crisis. The wages are just too damn low.


August 19 • 4:00 PM

Can Lawmakers Only Make Laws That Corporations Allow?

There’s a telling detail in a recent story about efforts to close loopholes in corporate tax laws.




August 19 • 12:00 PM

How ‘Contagion’ Became Contagious

Do ideas and emotions really spread like a virus?


August 19 • 10:00 AM

Child Refugees: The New Barbarians

The disturbing rhetoric around the recent rise in child refugees into the United States from Central America may be shaping popular opinion on upcoming immigration reform.


August 19 • 8:00 AM

Making Police Departments More Diverse Isn’t Enough

Local police departments should reflect the communities they serve, but fixing that alone won’t curb unnecessary violence.


August 19 • 7:15 AM

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.


August 19 • 6:00 AM

Seeking a Healthy Public School Lunch? Good Luck

Mystery meat will always win.


August 19 • 4:00 AM

The Positive Effects of Sports-Themed Video Games

New research finds sports-themed video games actually encourage some kids to get onto the field.


August 19 • 1:00 AM

DIY Diagnosis: How an Extreme Athlete Uncovered Her Genetic Flaw

When Kim Goodsell discovered that she had two extremely rare genetic diseases, she taught herself genetics to help find out why.



August 18 • 3:30 PM

Mister Rogers’ Heart-Healthy Neighborhood

Researchers find living in a friendly, cohesive neighborhood lowers seniors’ chances of having a heart attack.


August 18 • 2:00 PM

Wealth or Good Parenting?

Framing the privileges of the rich.


August 18 • 12:00 PM

How Much Did the Stigma of Mental Illness Harm Robin Williams?

Addiction treatment routinely fails people with mental illnesses, while mental health care often ignores addiction. And everywhere, stigma is rife. Can a tragic death prompt a more intelligent approach?


August 18 • 10:00 AM

Punished for Being Poor: The Problem With Using Big Data in the Justice System

Correctional departments use data-driven analyses because they’re easier and cheaper than individual assessments. But at what cost?


Follow us


Diversity Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Perception of group diversity depends on the race of the observer and the extent to which they worry about discrimination.

Psychopathic or Just Antisocial? A Key Brain Difference Tells the Tale

Though psychopaths and antisocial people may seem similar, what occurs in their brains isn’t.

Common Knowledge Makes Us More Cooperative

People are more inclined to take mutually beneficial risks if they know what others know.

How a Shift in Human Head Shape Changed Everything

When did homo sapiens become a more sophisticated species? Not until our skulls underwent "feminization."

Journalists Can Get PTSD Without Leaving Their Desks

Dealing with violent content takes a heavy toll on some reporters.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014 fast-food-big-one
Subscribe Now

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.