Louis CK, Robin Williams and the "Rules" of Humor

Christian Sager

From the "Louie" episode "Barney." Courtesy of FX.

The day after Robin Williams died I turned on Netflix and randomly chose an episode of Louis CK's eponymous show to watch. What loaded was "Barney," the beginning half of season 3, episode 6, where Louie (coincidentally for me) attends a funeral with Williams. Call it serendipity or whatever, but I wasn't quite sure what I'd gotten into when the two silently approach a coffin on a rainy morning. The episode seemed like it could go down a dark road when I was really just looking for a laugh, because like many, I was saddened by Williams' suicide.

Even before there was scientific evidence, we knew that laughter helps us cope with and understand everyday situations. Research has shown that 72% of laughing is making fun of ourselves or the people around us. Combine that with daily laughter statistics and we laugh at ourselves almost 13 times a day. But how does humor work, to get us laughing in the first place? And did "Louie" follow the guidelines of comedy to give me that laugh I needed?

Let's start with the formula for laughter, if such a thing exists. Peter McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, specializing in humor and running their Humor Research Lab since 2009. He has collaborated with others on multiple papers and a book about a so-called "humor code" called benign violation theory. Working together with his team, McGraw has also partnered with commercial creators to test whether his theory raises profits by making content funnier.

Benign violation theory basically argues that humor occurs when 1) a situation is a violation, 2) a situation is benign, and 3) both are perceived simultaneously. By "violation," McGraw refers to situations that threaten our beliefs about how the world should be. These could be physical or psychological threats, or simply situations that break society's norms. While the situation may at first seem threatening, when it's revealed to be safe, we begin to laugh. The further we are psychologically from violating the norm, the funnier it will be. Hence the often used, "too soon?" line after someone makes a joke about a tragic event and doesn't get a laugh. The more distance we have in time, the easier it is to accept something as funny. The day after 9/11? Probably not the best time to make twin towers cracks (just ask Gilbert Gottfried). But thirteen years later and you're starting to see a lot more comedians look back and find something to laugh about in that tragedy.

McGraw believes there is a link between how we respond to humor today and our original neanderthal response to the false alarm of danger. Laughter was probably our basic response when startled by a viper, only to realize it was just an odd looking tree branch. The Humor Research Lab continues using benign violation theory as a basis for its other research. For instance, are we more likely to laugh when we're drunk? What about if we smoke marijuana? The answers seem obvious, but McGraw tests each out each to accumulate evidence for his theory.

Now that you're briefed on McGraw and benign violation theory of humor, let's return to Louis CK. A 2011 "Wired" article documented McGraw meeting with CK and presenting his theory to the comedian. According to the piece, CK dismissed the idea as being too narrow a view of comedy. McGraw apparently responded with a joke about the size of CK's penis before then asking if Chris Rock might fund his Humor Research Lab. Clearly not following his own advice, it sounds like McGraw leaned way more on "violation" in the conversation and failed to amuse or persuade CK.

But does this social faux pas necessarily mean he's wrong? I don't know. But turning back to Louie and Robin Williams in "Barney," regardless of what he said to McGraw, CK definitely applies benign violation to making the episode funny. It hinges on two gags. The first is when the men meet up after the funeral and awkwardly try to respect the dead, but end up admitting that they both thought the deceased was a terrible person. CK says in the scene, "When he died... I felt nothing." This isn't the kindest of eulogies and violates our social conventions of how to behave when someone we know dies. Robin and Louie laugh over it. And so do we.

Later the men go to Barney's favorite strip club in the only way they know how to celebrate a man they both hated. When they tell some employees that Barney is dead, the entire seedy establishment falls into mourning. Strippers, security guards and even other patrons cry and lose their composure. Again though, we've got a violation (strip club culture on television) combined with the benign (appropriate grief for a dead loved one). This is so funny that CK and Williams lose it the second they leave the club, exploding into one of popular culture's most genuine, memorable guffaws. It's sweet and poignant in light of Williams' death. Especially when the two promise to attend one another's funerals before they part ways.

Just because benign violation theory sticks when applied to this one episode of television, doesn't necessarily mean it's in the DNA of every laugh in existence. The former president of the International Society for Humor Studies once said that there wasn't much difference between BVT and the more recognized "incongruity theory," established by philosophical heavy weights Kant and Kierkegaard. Those two argue that humor takes us by surprise by contrasting "strained expectation" with nothing at all.

My colleague Cristen Conger (one of the funniest people I've ever met) further describes this and other foundational concepts of comedy in a HowStuffWorks article on whether there's a scientific formula for funny. She also looks at how neurologists use functional magnetic resonance imaging to trace humor's origins to our brain. Turns out we detect jokes on the left side of the brain, but we process them in the insular cortex and the amygdala, which delivers the dopamine that induces our pleasure. If a joke is semantic in nature, it triggers our temporal lobe, while puns light up Broca's area of the brain. And if you have brain damage in your frontal lobe, it's more difficult to understand punch lines.

All this evidence shows that there are striations of humor, and they each affect our brain differently. Subsequently, I think I've got to agree with Louie over Peter McGraw. If all these cerebral areas are stimulated by different types of humor, than it's unlikely that there's a single, universal formula for what makes us laugh. But, benign violation theory obviously can make us laugh. And "Barney" is an excellent application of McGraw's theory.

It certainly made me laugh when I needed it.