Shouldn’t we feel sorry for the victims of painful physical humor?
“Tragedy is when I cut my finger,” the Mel Brooks adage goes. “Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.” Or when a guy gets hit in the groin.
In real life, we don’t usually find another person’s pain so hilarious, but in performance, or even in amateur YouTube videos, it can give us a major fit of the giggles. The unique hilarity of men’s genital pain has become somewhat of a fixture in certain corners of pop culture, from MTV’s Jackass to America’s Funniest Home Videos.
To understand why, let’s first dive into some of the broader theories of what makes us laugh. Psychologists, philosophers and humor theorists have been trying to work out why we find certain things amusing since the days of Plato and Aristotle. Humor remains a complex phenomenon, and no one theory yet has found a way to fully encapsulate and explain everything that amuses us-or at least no theory researchers can all agree on. But there are a couple of hypotheses that might apply in the case of pain-related humor:
According to Peter McGraw, a psychologist and director of the University of Boulder’s Humor Research Lab, we are amused by things that upset our world in small, perhaps even imperceptible ways. His lab researches a theory that all humor results from some kind of benign violation, something that makes us subconsciously uncomfortable. “There’s something potentially negative–something wrong, threatening, unsettling, i.e. a violation–but also in some ways it seems O.K.–safe and acceptable,” he explains.
The concept of “benign violation” builds on a theory, introduced by linguist Thomas Veatch in a 1998 paper in the International Journal of Humor Research, that humor consists of incongruity between one socially acceptable element and as well as an element that violates the “subjective moral order.”
When people get injured, it’s unsettling, and something we think shouldn’t happen under normal circumstances. So we only laugh under a particular set of conditions, like if a situation seems in some way unreal or distant, or if social cues tell us it’s supposed to be comedic. For example: Try watching America’s Funniest Home Videos without the upbeat, jaunty music in the background to signal that it’s a comedic (socially acceptable) setting. It starts to look flat-out disturbing.
AGGRESSION AND SUPERIORITY THEORY
Physical assault definitely violates most society’s idea of a moral order, which perhaps explains why aggression plays some kind of role in most humor. Freud theorized that humor serves as a way to dissipate sexual or aggressive tension in a socially acceptable way. Thomas Hobbes argues in the Leviathan that laughter arises from feeling superior, and that it’s an extension of a feeling of “sudden glory” arising from recognizing someone else’s comparative defect or weakness.
While humor and laughter aren’t always intertwined (one can laugh without being amused, and find something funny without physically laughing), laughing at another’s person’s pain and humiliation can be about cutting people down to size. Or leveling the social playing field.
“Laughing at the boss, [when] students make jokes about professors–it’s always about challenging the hierarchy, but challenging them in a form of play,” explains Joseph Polimeni, a psychiatrist and associate professor at the University of Manitoba. That’s why it’s usually funnier if a pompous businessman slips on a banana peel and goes sprawling, rather than when an invalid does. This playful challenge aspect of humor might go back to primates, Polimeni theorizes–the way young chimps hit an alpha male in play, to test boundaries. There’s also some evidence that apes enjoy slapstick, too.
In Inside Jokes, Indiana University cognitive scientist Matthew Hurley and his co-authors put forward yet another theory of humor: That mirth results from realizing we’ve leapt to a wrong conclusion about the world–a “mistaken commitment” in our working memory. Nature rewards us for sniffing out inconsistencies in our worldview, they argue.
That would explain why it’s not funny when people get hurt in expected ways, like in a bar fight, but, going back to the previous example, slipping on a banana peel might be. Our automatic assumption–that the sidewalk is clear of slippery fruits–has been challenged.
Psychological distance helps people distinguish between what situations seem funny and what seem terrifying or abhorrent-why accidents in movies or YouTube videos might seem comedic even when the real-life situations wouldn’t. “I think that’s part of the reason the Jackass guys getting hurt is so funny,” McGraw says. You don’t necessarily like them, so “you’re not totally on their side.”
“Slapstick is less funny if it seems too real or if the viewer feels empathy for the victim,” he and his co-authors wrote in a 2010 paper in Psychological Science.
That’s why we let our kids watch the Looney Toons beat the stuffing out of each other: Cartoon animals aren’t human. Because they’re not real to us, we don’t care that they get hurt, a notion that’s reinforced when they bounce back, as fit as ever, from deadly situations like falling off cliffs or being flattened by cars. Shows like South Park can get away with a lot more brutality in the name of humor and still be comedic, as McGraw and his co-authors wrote in a later study, because “hypotheticality can make scathing satire and brutal violence humorous.”
By the same turn, too much distance can decrease the humor of a painful situation. The more time passes after a small mishap, the less cachet it holds as a punch line, the study found. Tripping over a curb might be funny in the moment, but a year later, no one cares.
Other forces come into play, too, when we see a moment of physical humor. The brain gets its wires crossed when confronted by someone else getting hurt. As a pain-filled situation unfolds, a witness doesn’t experience the negative emotional valence that the person in pain does, but the brain still registers an emotional arousal. It can mistakenly categorize the sudden spike in emotion as positive. “[T]he arousal of the event can be misattributed to the positive emotion of mirth, intensifying it, while the negative emotional valence of pain isn’t there to interfere,” Hurley explained via email.
It might have nothing to do with finding the pain itself funny, or lacking the empathy to understand another person’s tragedy. It may be about “the way you recruit the emotional system to answer questions about the scenario,” according to Nina Strohminger, a psychologist doing post-doctoral research at Duke University’s Kenan Institute for Ethics. Perhaps the part of the brain that finds something funny just overwhelms the part that recognizes it as wrong.
“Think of it this way: You have a situation that’s a tragedy–someone falls down, there is something bad that happens–but there’s something about the situation that meets the criteria for funniness, quite independent of the fact that someone’s getting hurt,” she explains. “They make a weird facial expression or a funny sound. It’s always especially funny when an authority figure falls, like if the Pope falls. The fact that we laugh is maybe not because the person is getting hurt, but in spite of it.”
So let’s get back to the task at hand: hitting dudes in the balls. It’s a kind of baffling genre of comedy–when asked, plenty of men (and women) will tell you it’s not funny at all when someone gets smacked in the groin. And yet, the crotch shot endures in comedy. There’s a Simpsons episode where Homer falls in love with a short film, “Man Gets Hit By Football.” If you can imagine, it entails a man taking a football pass straight to the groin. Homer cackles, “The ball–his groin! It works on so many levels!”
Somehow, it does. In addition to some of the overarching humor theories, there are a couple added reasons we might find this to be a particularly humorous type of pain.
“Snide references to sexuality are the very essence of humor, and have been for a long time,” says Christie Davies, a sociologist and author of the book Jokes and Targets. “It would be particularly humiliating, and partly, it would very rapidly incapacitate someone.”
Besides the Freudian implications of the aggressive and sexual tension in the situation, there’s also the suddenness with which a blow to the ‘nads can take down even an otherwise big, strapping man. “Someone who’s powerful and dignified, who’s now keeling over in response to what seems like this minor infraction–so easily brought down from their normally human perch–is a violation of expectation,” Strohminger explains.
Add that to the theories already at play with physical humor-benign violations, mistaken commitments, aggression, emotional arousal-and you have a pretty hilarious situation on your hands. So perhaps that’s why, as one researcher commented, “it’s funny just hearing someone say ‘a guy getting hit in the crotch.'”
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