On Comedy: The Science of 'Too Soon'

In general, there are few things less funny and interesting to talk about than the science and psychology of humor. While there have certainly been some insightful and captivating think pieces on humor over the years (my friend and colleague Lindy West's being chief among them), most reflections on the topic tend to devolve into dull monologues about what can be funny (butt stuff), who can be funny (sad clowns) and what you're allowed to laugh at (sad clowns suffering from butt stuff).

To get this over with quickly, here's my grand philosophy on humor: If you laugh at something, it's funny. To you. Maybe not to everybody else. Humor is entirely subjective, but laughing at somethings will objectively make you look like a dick. Oh, and dogs on skateboards are never not hilarious. The end!

So now onto beating a less dead horse. It'll be interesting! I promise!


Chances are we've all heard the phrase "too soon" uttered after someone makes an off-color joke following a tragic or bleak event. You might think that "too soon" is based on the opinion of the person who the joke offended and in some cases that might be true, but, as psychologist Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner recently found out, the amount of time that needs to pass before it becomes appropriate to joke about a tragedy is actually measurable!

From The Atlantic:

The lab identified that jokes can, indeed, be "too soon," as my colleague Julie Beck described: One study by McGraw and researchers at Texas A&M University found tweets about Hurricane Sandy to be least funny 15 days after it struck, most funny 36 days after the fact, and once again not funny 99 days later.

How strange that a joke can go from not acceptable to acceptable to not acceptable again, all in a matter months. Just spit-balling here, but maybe that's because a lot of people begin making dark jokes in their heads immediately following tragedy, so by the time it becomes appropriate to voice their jokes out loud, they already feel tired and cliché. Maybe?

Of course, not all "tragedy + time" is created equal:

Through clinical studies, the lab has found that tragedies—think earthquakes, deaths, and the like—are funnier when they're either physically or socially distant. "Mishaps" meanwhile, are funnier when we're closer to them, which is why Anthony Weiner's Twitter misadventures featured prominently on American late-night shows, but comparable foibles by, say, an Indonesian politician would not have. Likewise, participants found a picture of a man with a frozen beard (mishap) funnier than a man with his finger stuck through his own eye socket (tragedy.)

McGraw and Warner have a whole book coming out called The Humor Code that covers the science, psychology and different cultural norms of humor. Many of their findings are pretty fascinating. For example, their researchers found that the generally accepted idea that comedians are more depressed than other people is actually a bit of a myth. They also observed that people with higher IQs were typically funnier (rating humor was based on the wit demonstrated while captioning New Yorker cartoons), that men try harder than women to make others laugh and that women with a high number of sex partners are more likely to produce humorous content. Slut it up, ya clowns!

(Disclaimer: I'm sure that we can all find exceptions to these rules and can also likely agree that New Yorker captions are not necessarily the standard of humor of which all other humor should be judged.)

Anyway, here's this:

Image via Shutterstock.