Liquid Comedy?

by Jessie Roberts

Wayne Curtis investigates whether drinking can make you funnier. He looks to an experiment by Joel Warner and Peter McGraw, authors of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny:

The instructions to the subjects were straightforward: Come up with a gag. Have a drink. Repeat. After each round, the subjects [all from the creative team at Grey New York, an advertising firm] were asked to rate their drunkenness on a seven-point scale ranging from “sober” to “shit-faced.” (McGraw admits that his study “will never make its way into a peer-reviewed journal.”) They were also asked to rate their own jokes, on a scale of “slightly amusing” to “hilarious.” The jokes were later judged independently by a sober online panel.

The experiment was designed in part to test McGraw’s “benign violation” theory of humor, one in a long line of attempts to offer a universal explanation of what circumstances make us laugh. McGraw theorizes that humor arises when something “wrong, unsettling, or threatening” overlaps with a safe, nonthreatening context. So somebody falling down the stairs (violation) is funny, but only if the person lands unhurt (benign). Slapping is funny; stabbing is not. A faux-clueless Sarah Silverman saying racist things is funny; a drunk and hostile Mel Gibson is not. Each gag the Grey New York folks created was to take the form of a Venn diagram illustrating benign violation. Among the early contributions were two circles labeled “Grandpa” and “Erection,” the overlap of which was deemed “funny.”

The results?

“Drinking reduces inhibition,” McGraw says. “But it opens the door to failure, with failure likely to be on the side of going too far.” In the end, only three of the ad folks lasted for five stiff drinks at the Hurricane Club before they decided to call it quits. Among the final gags was a Venn diagram with “cancer” in one circle and “unpoppable pimple” in the other. The creator rated it hysterical. The online panel, not so much. “As people became more intoxicated, they thought they were funnier, but a sober audience didn’t see it that way,” Warner notes.