Saturday, April 16, 2011

A Punch in the GUT

A very alert reader referred me to a Wired article about a professor who purports to have a Grand Unified Theory of Comedy. Naturally, whenever I hear about somebody who has apparently solved the conundrum of comedy, a small part of me, I won't say which, curls up into a quivering, snail-like fleshcoil of despair that someone else got there first, and I begin to wish I were only as unlucky as Scott; what usually then happens is that I become priapic with rage as I read some trilling, preening intellectual dilettante dismiss two and a half thousand years of scholarship, including writings by such names as oh, I don't know, Plato, Hobbes, Kant, Freud and Bergson, to say that he has come up with a novel theory of comedy, which invariably involves some trite wordsmithing to come up with a vague, usually sentimental gesture towards a supposedly common-sensical explanation of all things comic.

Let's just say that once I unfurled from my fear and began reading the article, my subsequent emotional state was unsurprising, except to the extent that it was more depressing than infuriating: why is it that one of the most perplexing and ubiquitous, exciting and strange dimensions of life - comedy and jokes, humour and laughter - can inspire so much shabby, shoddy intellectual charlatanism? (If you're reading this blog daily, no doubt it is a question you've asked yourself many times.)

In this case, after situating the reader in a conference about comedy, apparently one of the first of its sort (?), Joel Warner introduces us to his star:

But as the sessions wound on, no one had addressed the underlying mechanism of comedy: What, exactly, makes things funny? That question was the core of Peter McGraw’s lecture. A lanky 41-year-old professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, McGraw thinks he has found the answer, and it starts with a tickle. “Who here doesn’t like to be tickled?” A good number of hands shot up. “Yet you laugh,” he said, flashing a goofy grin. “You experience some pleasurable reaction even as you resist and say you don’t like it.” If you really stop to think about it, McGraw continued, it’s a complex and fascinating phenomenon.

If an audience of comedologists, as I like to call them, hasn't ever stopped to think about tickling, they're in the wrong business; it would be like asking an audience of herpetologists if they've ever stopped to consider slime.

If someone touches you in certain places in a certain way, it prompts an involuntary but pleasurable physiological response. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. “When does tickling cease to be funny?” McGraw asked. “When you try to tickle yourself … Or if some stranger in a trench coat tickles you.”

Right. So they've never encountered Adam Phillips? Or what about the "philosopher of comedy", John Morreall? Because, as they say in my part of New York, this shit is basic.

The audience cracked up. He was working the room like a stand-up comic.

Now we're on to something. The author of this piece is making a slight error here in his simile, but it's an interesting one, and we'll come to that in a moment. But for now, apparently when saying something that simply doesn't read as funny when written on the page (at least to me), and, if anything, seems to betray a casually lazy ignorance both on his part and on the part of the audience, McGraw can be very funny. So perhaps there's something about presentation, tone, manners and mannerisms, voice, and timing, all constituents of the context, or the particular experience, that affects what is and what is not funny? Shall we see if McGraw's GUT addresses these?

[McGraw] has devised a simple, Grand Unified Theory of humor—in his words, “a parsimonious account of what makes things funny.” McGraw calls it the benign violation theory, and he insists that it can explain the function of every imaginable type of humor. And not just what makes things funny, but why certain things aren’t funny. “My theory also explains nervous laughter, racist or sexist jokes, and toilet humor,” he told his fellow humor researchers.

It's quite possible that "nervous laughter, racist or sexist jokes, and toilet humor" are of one category, but it's also possible that they are wildly disparate, so I'm not quite sure what this list is supposed to accomplish. But either way, we've encountered the parismonious Grand Unified Theory of every imaginable type of humor: Benign Violation Theory. And right away, there's a very important claim that elevates this to a theory proper: that it can explain not just what makes things funny but why certain things are not funny.

A theory, after all, must do something. The best theories predict; they specify a future outcome. Decent theories can essentially be descriptive, providing that they still do something, which usually means that they continue to generate distinctions that are imperfect but where the imperfections are themselves informative and meaningful. In other words, a theory of comedy that fulfills the expectations of a theory in physics would predict whether every single "joke" is funny or not; a theory of comedy that is essentially descriptive but can continue to generate distinctions between what is funny or not funny, where exceptions are at least interesting, would be a more reasonable goal for the empirically-minded students of comedy.

So what can this particular theory do?

Coming up with an essential description of comedy isn’t just an intellectual exercise. If the BVT actually is an unerring predictor of what’s funny, it could be invaluable. It could have warned Groupon that its Super Bowl ad making light of Tibetan injustices would bomb.The Love Guru could’ve been axed before production began. Podium banter at the Oscars could be less excruciating. If someone could crack the humor code, they could get very rich. Or at least tenure.

There's already a twist: what the theory "does" is shifted away from generating distinctions into some sort of practical efficacy. Now, if you aren't aware of the Groupon Super Bowl ad fiasco, it goes as follows: truck-loads of thousand-dollar bills are driven into the vaults of ad agencies and network televisions for the advertisements aired during the Super Bowl; these ads are, for many of us, much more fun than the game, because they are quite often brilliant; Groupon did an ad at the last Super Bowl that, and I'll quote back here, made "light of Tibetan injustices". Apparently, McGraw's theory could have prevented this. But, prevented what? Isn't it possible that despite apparently "bombing" (and it was indeed controversial) the ad is still actually very funny - and, then again, was it not very successful as an attention-grabbing ad? How would McGraw's GUT, if it even works to distinguish the funny from the not-funny, have prevented this fiasco-which-might-not-have-been-a-fiasco? And, thinking of some of the other examples, is it even possible to conceive of a theory of comedy that could determine whether or not an entire film would be funny? And is it possible that the podium banter at the Oscars is excruciating not because of the lines being fed to the actors but because of the way the actors are delivering them? The key here is to notice the slinking commercialism of the approach and the conclusion of the paragraph: whoever "cracks the comedy code" could make lots of money (I think that the "Or at least tenure" is not a wry aside about academics; I think it's a serious addendum, an afterthought).

Remember, of course, that McGraw is a Professor of Psychology and Marketing. This is all about marketing. McGraw isn't doing "stand-up comedy", he's marketing himself and his theory.

The article meanders through some of McGraw's (potentially quite interesting) experiments, followed by a completely dishonest gloss on other theories of comedy (if you want to read a book where the author competently and thoughtfully and fairly reviews preceding theories of comedy before going on to discuss his own views, then read the book that was forever after fated for the opposite treatment, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious). This section of the article wraps up with an explanation about how the Benign Violation Theory works:

The professor was able to plug the BVT into every form of humor. Dirty jokes violate social norms in a benign way because the traveling salesmen and farmers’ daughters that populate them are not real. [eh?] Punch lines make people laugh because they gently [eh?] violate the expectations that the jokes set up. The BVT also explains Sarah Silverman, McGraw says; the appalling things that come out of her mouth register as benign because she seems [eh?] so oblivious to their offensiveness, and “because she’s so darn cute.” [patronising dick] Even tickling, long a stumbling block for humor theorists [eh?], appears to fit. Tickling yourself can’t be a violation, because you can’t take yourself by surprise. Being tickled by a stranger in a trench coat isn’t benign; it’s creepy. Only tickling by someone you know and trust can be a benign violation. [Doesn't "Only tickling by someone you know and trust can be a benign violation" sound very, very . . . creepy?]

Okay, just a few quick points: "not real"; "seems so oblivious", "because she's so darn cute"; "by surprise"; "it's creepy" - none of these are necessarily derived from a unified concept of "benign violation". It's just that the term "benign violation" is so vague, so approximate to comedy, and contains something of the hint of the tension of comedy in it. Collecting in a large conch trapped echoes of the pleasure, the tensions and dramas, and the ambiguities of comedy, and then claiming the conch therefore reproduces the sea; this is a description that lacks any theory, where all the work that needs to be done is in interpreting it, and then mistaking that work for the work of the theory itself.

But then we get to the meat of it all. Here's where, as they say, it's at:

McGraw and the HuRL team continue to test the theory even as they begin to deploy it in the real world. They’ve partnered with mShopper, a mobile commerce service, to see whether BVT-tested humor can make text-message product offers more compelling. They’ve also launched FunnyPoliceReports .com, which aggregates law enforcement dispatches that are likely to amuse readers, such as a woman who called the cops when she was sold fake cocaine. If the website sounds sort of like FAIL Blog, that’s no accident. McGraw knows Ben Huh, CEO of the Cheezburger Network, who has been using HuRL’s findings to help determine what content and features have the potential to be the next big meme.

Note that "FunnyPoliceReports" is neither original nor dependent upon a "theory of comedy"; no, this is all about marketing. And isn't it depressing that the "real world" is the world of marketing, and not the world of intellectual inquiry?

What happens next, though, is quite interesting. On the one hand, the article seems to be doing what so much contemporary journalism does, in the name of a feeble objectivity: it provides a few counter-quotes for supposed balance and let's the reader "decide", without inserting any sort of contextual nuance or fact-checking that might prejudice the reader towards the truth.

His well-honed delivery gets a lot of laughs, but his theory ultimately receives the same polite applause as everything else. There are no stunned looks of amazement in the audience, no rumblings of a field torn asunder.

And why might that be?

Maybe it’s because a discipline that can’t even agree on what to call the response elicited by humor isn’t ready for a universal theory of humor.

Riiiight. They can't handle the truth. But then Warner lets the damning begin:

The BVT also has its fair share of detractors. ISHS president Elliott Oring says, “I didn’t see many big differences between this theory and the various formulations of incongruity theory.” Victor Raskin, founder of the academic journal Humor: International Journal of Humor Research, is more blunt: “What McGraw has come up with is flawed and bullshit—what kind of a theory is that?” To his mind, the BVT is a “very loose and vague metaphor,” not a functional formula like E=mc2. He’s also quick to challenge McGraw’s standing in the tight-knit community of scholarship: “He is not a humor researcher; he has no status.”

I now fucking love Victor Raskin.

McGraw’s lecture did impress Robert Mankoff, cartoon editor at The New Yorker, who also gave a presentation in San Antonio [. . . ] Mankoff says he admires McGraw’s work, “and I admire him even more for having the balls to take his theory on the road as stand-up.” But he also has a caveat for McGraw and other humor scientists: “All these theories are so general that they’re of no use when you’re trying to craft a good cartoon.” He cites one that he’s particularly fond of, an illustration of a Swiss Army knife featuring nothing but corkscrews. The caption reads “French Army knife.” No Venn diagram, he says, has ever produced a joke like that.

So, in effect, McGraw is in the marketing business and he now has a faux-niche to call his own; no doubt a book will follow and con$ulting gigs. Warner's article seems to be making every effort to defend McGraw, and yet he gives McGraw's detractors (and fans) ample opportunity to stick a dagger deep into the navel of McGraw's GUT.

What ends the piece is a bear-trap vignette about McGraw going to see one of his favourite comedians, Louis CK.

The comedian slumps into a chair, the toll of weeks on the road apparent on his face. Knowing that he has only a few minutes, McGraw gives a nutshell version of his well-honed spiel. He lays out the BVT and describes the tickling conundrum that killed at the humor symposium. But CK cuts him off. “I don’t think it’s that simple,” he says, directing as much attention to a preshow ham sandwich as to McGraw. “There are thousands of kinds of jokes. I just don’t believe that there’s one explanation.”

Oof, tough room. His research dismissed, McGraw casts about for another subject of inquiry. Luckily, he’d polled fellow attendees for questions while waiting for an audience with CK. “A woman in the lobby wants to know how big your penis is,” he says. CK cracks the faintest of smiles, shakes his head. “I am not going to answer that.”

“I wouldn’t either,” McGraw says. With a chuckle he adds, “But I’ve heard that if you don’t answer that, it means it’s small.”

The silence that follows is so thick you could pound in a nail and hang a painting from it. That last remark is a violation, and it isn’t benign.

BUT IT'S FUCKING FUNNY!!! Dickhead "professor" of marketing goes to see a comedian in private before a show, pitches his theory, gets shot-down, tries to joke about dicks and is met with stony silence. That is funny. And surely we've come to the most obvious of points: that comedy can be cruel, vicious, divisive and destructive at its very funniest, where its cloak of benevolence, its benign aura of harmlessness, is its cruelest, most vicious, most divisive and destructive feature?

The piece actually gets funnier, though I won't quote how, and then it gets depressing.

Sensing that his time is up, McGraw heads for the door. He did get one valuable takeaway: “My approach to this sort of research needs to be more professional.”

His "theory" has been completely dismantled in every way, but, remember, it's all about the marketing. McGraw just needs to work on his approach.

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