Using “Benign Violation Theory” to Make Your Writing Funnier

Words humor writing mini course in front of a messy teacher desk

This lesson is part of a self-guided, online humor writing course called Making It Funny: The Art and Science of Humor Writing.

In today’s lesson, below we’ll talk about the “benign violation” theory of humor, and how to choose the right level of detail to make your writing fit into the funny zone.

Benign Violation Theory explained:

We think something is funny when it violates our sense of what is okay, but is also benign enough not to offend us too badly.

This theory was developed by psychologist Peter McGraw. You can learn about it in more detail in Peter McGraw and Joel Warner’s book, The Humor Code. If you find a joke funny, this probably explains why. If you find a joke boring (too benign) or offensive (too much of a violation), this probably explains why as well.

Here’s a 12-minute video of Peter McGraw’s TEDx talk: What Makes Things Funny

Here’s a quick recap of the theory as it relates to today’s lesson:

To be funny, something has to be a “violation”…

That means it has to go against what we expect and/or feel is appropriate. If your joke is not enough of a violation, you’ll probably find yourself getting a sympathetic nod instead of a laugh.

…but it also has to be benign. 

That means it’s safe enough not to hurt. If your joke is not benign enough, you’re likely to find yourself on the defensive, complaining that your Facebook friends take everything too seriously and that people need to chill out. Or having to fall back on that cliche classic followup line for a not-benign-enough joke: “Too soon?”

You want your joke to fall into the gray middle area of Peter McGraw’s Venn Diagram.

The rest of this lesson offers two writing activities that will help you keep your writing in “the funny zone.”

Make Me Funny(er)!

For more detailed explanations, curated examples, and writing exercises to apply this to your own writing, you can sign up for the full course below. If you’d like to read a course outline, here’s link to learn more about Making It Funny: the Art and Science of Humor Writing. (If you’re a teacher who would like to teach a humor-writing unit in your classroom, you can find a classroom-ready unit plan on Teachers Pay Teachers. There is also a discounted version of the unit plan available at checkout when you sign up for the full course below.)

Making It Funny: The Art and Science of Humor Writing
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