Using “Benign Violation Theory” to Make Your Writing Funnier

In the third lesson of this free, six-week humor writing mini-course, we’ll talk about how to choose the right level of detail to make your writing fit into the “Benign Violation” Theory of humor. 

Benign Violation Theory: 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 this Venn Diagram.

Microscope vs. Telescope

Today’s exercise is designed to help your writing fall into the sweet spot on the Venn Diagram above. The first thing to do is think about your subject matter (or your current draft) and decide where it falls on the diagram. Then decide whether you need to take the “microscope” approach or the “telescope” approach to make it funny.

The “Microscope” Approach

If the subject matter is small and frivolous and unemotional, it naturally falls into the benign category. That means it runs the risk of being boring. To make it funny,  you need to make it more of a violation of readers’ expectations. This often means getting closer to the subject matter and magnifying small details. Overdo the details. Exaggerate the emotional impact. In other words, put it under a microscope.

Steve Almond (Excerpt from book Against Football)

(Describing his favorite team, the Oakland Raiders)
For those who are not familiar with the Raiders, they are the epitome of the term once proud, a franchise incapable of accepting that its best years are past. I think of them as the NFL’s version of a wildly popular child actor who starred in a couple of minor hits in the eighties and has now grown into an ugly, entitled, coke-addicted adult who struts around D-list parties in mirrored sunglasses and parachute pants reeking of Polo cologne and insulting women who decline his invitation to head back to his pad to check out his python. There is a chance I have given this analogy too much thought.

Jerry Seinfeld (paraphrased from standup comedy show)

Now they show you how detergents take out bloodstains – a pretty violent image there. I think if you’ve got a T-shirt with a bloodstain all over it, maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem. Maybe you should get rid of the body before you do the wash.

Kevin Hart (paraphrased from standup comedy show)

So I’m at the office, I tell this guy…Pass me the stapler, but when you pass it, make sure staples are in it, because if it isn’t, I can’t staple anything.

John Mulaney (paraphrased from standup comedy show)

….If you watch cartoons, quicksand is like the third biggest thing you have to worry about in adult life, behind real sticks of dynamite and giant anvils falling on you from the sky. I used to sit around and think about what to do about quicksand! I never thought about how to handle real problems in adult life. I was never like, “Oh, what’s it gonna be like when relatives ask to borrow money?”

Additional tips for putting your subject under a “microscope”
  • Overdo the details to the point that it becomes an inappropriate level of detail, as Steve Almond does in the example above.
  • Exaggerate the emotional impact felt by the person involved so it becomes an inappropriate reaction. For example, you may get way too excited about a small thing that’s not very exciting.)
  • Tell the story through the eyes of a child. This allows you to make things into a much bigger deal than they would be to an adult.
  • Act as if the story just happened. For example, a traffic-related story might be interesting or funny the day it happened. If you’re still telling the same story of getting cut off by some jerk eating a muffin ten months later, it’s not as funny.

The “Telescope” Approach

If your subject matter is something very serious or sad, it’s already on the violation side of the spectrum. To make it funnier, you need to lighten it up a bit by giving readers some distance. (Comics and writers who do this well include Sarah Silverman, Anjelah Johnson, Mishna Wolff)

Paraphrased example from standup comic Anjelah Johnson:
“My mom had four kids… my dad had five… so, that’s what happened there.”

Tips for using the “telescope” approach to give readers distance from a subject:
  • Deliberately withhold details
  • Minimize the emotional impact
  • Show that a lot of time has passed. For example, if something sad or unfair happens to a child, most readers won’t think it’s funny. If an adult is telling the story of something that happened to them as a child, it might be funny, especially if that adult is now a successful comedian or bestselling author.
  • Show that the person learned the lesson and is better for the experience
  • Make the narrator unsympathetic, even if the narrator is you. For example, if you acknowledge that you cut someone off in traffic while eating a muffin and talking on the phone and then they yelled at you, the readers will find it funnier than if someone just yelled at you for no reason.

Want more examples of great humor writing? They’ll be added on an ongoing basis here.

Today’s Writing Assignment

Write a piece that starts with the words, “I don’t know why I still remember this…” Then, describe the memory in as much detail as possible, hopefully until the reason you do remember this random thing becomes clear. As you write, think about where you can use the “microscope” approach to bring something closer to readers or the “telescope” approach to add distance between the readers and the subject matter. In some cases, you can use both techniques in the same piece of writing.

If you’re a teacher who would like to teach humor writing to your students, you can find my classroom-friendly humor writing unit on TeachersPayTeachers here.

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