The Various Shades of Humour

“I was digging in our garden when I found a chest full of gold coins. I was about to run straight home to tell my wife about it, but then I remembered why I was digging in our garden.”

Did that make you smile or did you find it something that you wouldn’t tell your 10-year-old sister?

 Have you ever wondered what actually makes things funny?

Peter McGraw is a famous American professor of Marketing and Psychology. He established HURL (Humour Research Laboratory) and stated two things that when combined together makes jokes or situations funny. These two things are benign (safe) and violation.

As we see the above Venn diagram, the intersection of these two characteristics define humour.

For e.g.

Observe this image

Here, this is the case of something being just benign, and since nothing is violated, we don’t find this image to be funny

Now observe this image

Woah, this image is a pure malign violation of social ethics and etiquette. As this image displays just the violation, a person in their right state of mind would never find it funny.

Now let us look at this image:

The above image is known as a pun by most of the youth out there and they find such humour funny. Yes, there is a reason for it . In the above image we observed that there was a benign violation, some social standards were violated but benignly. It was a safe transgression which was funny to certain sections of society while the remaining section just read it the way it is written. Every time we laugh at something, our brain subconsciously knows that it is benignly violated.  If you just walked down the stairs, which is benign(safe), hence no one finds it funny. If you fall down the stairs, it is a pure violation and you get hurt, hence, it’s not funny. For you.

 But at the same time when you watch someone else fall, you might find it funny as even if it is a violation, you are safe and hence it’s a benign violation in your case.

The main purpose behind acknowledging our readers with the benign violation theory was that it plays a key role when we talk about dark humour.

So what is dark humour?

Dark humour is basically another example of benign violation, but in this case, the violation bit is taken a little far, beyond normal imagination. It is the humour or the jokes made on sensitive social topics like racism, sexism, taboos or certain historical events like the Holocaust, slavery etc. Nowadays dark humour has become quite popular among the millennials and GenZ-ers, yet a large section of society finds it quite offensive and unacceptable.

But was this always the case?

Dark humour as a concept has always been there since the inception of humanity and humans living together in various communities. There has always been a certain section of society who enjoyed jokes on sensitive issues or a famous personality. Dark humour never really changed much over time. It always had the same purpose; joking on sensitive social issues or a certain individual or an unfortunate incident. Over the time, people started expressing it, and the two main factors that played an important role giving people the courage to come out and crack a dark joke were:

  1. Democracy
  2. Social Media

Years ago, when there was a monarchy almost everywhere and democracy was yet to be established, people didn’t have the Right of Expression and Speech. They had to worship their kings and queens, irrespective of how they ruled the kingdom. Anything spoken against the king was considered as a criminal offense and the victim either was thrown into gallons or publicly executed. Dark humour did exist, but limited to only certain groups of people. These people used to gather at some point of day, used to enjoy those jokes, which remained restricted to it only.

When democracy started to become a prominent form of government in the world after the 19th century, people got many fundamental rights such as the Right to Speech and Right to Expression, which led to the expansion of these small groups. People would still crack dark jokes, but only in a very limited amount of audience and sometimes anonymously, for the apprehension was still very much there. 

After the introduction of various social media platforms in the 21st century, these people went behind the screen and started using these dark jokes more prominently and to a larger section of people. Hence, dark humour became a genre in the list of types of humour on various social media platforms like 9Gag and Reddit.

At the end of the day, after all the hard work we do, we all deserve a good laugh. A Netflix spokesperson said that 61% of Indians prefer comedy series, as compared to their global counterparts (44%). This may include comedy series, sitcoms, stand-up comedies, live shows, or even reality TV.

The Greek Philosopher Plato thought that ‘Envy and malice were the root of the comic’. If we think about it, it still holds true. The number of wholesome memes or bits that we come across is pretty low. Even if we try to think about a joke that we heard when we were kids, there is always a person who is the “butt of a joke”.

The comedy that we were exposed to as kids was mildly racist. The typical working husband and stay-at home wife jokes that are very common among ‘Boomers’ or middle-aged people of the day, are also considered sexist by many of their younger, socially more aware, counterparts. Then the ‘Yo mama -’ jokes that have been popular among kids since the past years are often based on obesity, age, race, homosexuality, economic status, or physical attributes.

These kinds of jokes may not seem funny to us now, but as kids every one of us has laughed on someone else.

Sarah Ilott, a senior lecturer in English and film at Manchester Metropolitan University and co-author of Comedy and the Politics of Representation says, “Comedy’s whole purpose and existence is to be shocking, to be vulgar, to be the clown who points out that the emperor has no clothes”

Comedy from ancient times till date, has its root in exclusion. A group jokes about a set of people that it considers ‘outsiders’.

In recent times comedy has seen a drastic change. Once comedy was all about adult humour and physical gags. Shows like ‘The Office’, ‘Rick and Morty’ or ‘Bojack Horseman’ have seen a drastic shift in the definition of what’s considered ‘funny’. Humour is increasingly becoming satirical, edgy and nihilistic. High profile comedians of all eras have used edgy jokes for centuries. If their jokes were not always pushing boundaries, their approach to comedy would be considered too dull, uninspired and hackneyed

Dark humour is a style of comedy that makes light of subject matter that is generally considered taboo, particularly subjects that are normally considered serious or painful to discuss. It includes a very wide range – based on historic events, sexism, racism, homophobia, abortion, rape, disability, death, etc.

There are levels of dark humour. Light dark humour can also be found in popular shows shown on TV. Different people have different taste in humour. Some people find a sarcastic comment highly offensive while some people enjoy surfing through the internet, searching for dark memes.

Frankly, there is no limit to what people may find funny. On the dark web, people pay to watch murder videos, or even animals being tortured and laugh at it. The internet is full of graphic violence.

Some jokes even touch upon historic topics including 9/11, the Holocaust, assassination of JFK, or slavery. An argument against those is that, a person who hasn’t lived those horrifying experiences has no right to even joke about it.

Relevance is a very important thing that is key to determining if a joke is funny or offensive. If a kid is laughing at a mildly racist joke, is that morally right? If a black man living in the US is laughing at a slavery-based dark meme, would it be considered offensive? What if a person sitting in India, is laughing at the same joke ironically, with no ill intentions? His family has never experienced generations of slavery, so one can say that he is ignorant. What if a white supremacist laughs at the same joke, only non- ironically? Where do we draw a line on who can laugh at the joke or crack a joke on which topic?

Doesn’t intent play an important role?

Consider historic events like the Holocaust and 9/11. If 40% of the population finds a joke on these events offensive today, will that number change after a hundred more years? How about five hundred years, when no person who actually has gone through that horrible experience is alive. Is it okay to joke about these events after a specific time period? Popular TV shows have mocked references to these events. Their intent is to make us laugh. Is it okay to laugh at these events? Doesn’t relevance play an important role here?

The same applies to religious humour. Shows like ‘South Park’ have undergone serious censorship on making light of these topics. But what if a person belonging to a particular religious group makes jokes about his own group? Is it okay? Is it still fine if that person targets a specific religious minority? Is it okay for an atheist to joke on all religions, or even one religion?

Is a disabled person making fun of himself okay? What if a healthy, fully-abled person does the same? What if another person with a disability makes the same joke directed to others?

The answer to whether a joke is funny or not depends on too many factors. The most important are intent and relevance. If someone cracks a death joke at a funeral, that would defintely be frowned upon. If a person makes a joke with an ill intent, or hatred directed towards a particular social group, that is obviously wrong. But whom are we to judge if dark humour should be ironic or not? What about the beheading or assassination videos that people laugh at? Don’t such people need to seek psychological help rather than just criticism from online strangers?

Now let us recall our benign violation theory. As we went through humanity’s history, we observed, in olden times, people found some things really funny, but they understood that even if it was funny, it wasn’t safe to joke about it and was a pure violation. But after democracy and social media sites came into picture, the proportion of benignity in this increased, people began to feel safe as they thought cracking this joke online won’t cause them much harm apart from some hate comments and some unreal threats. As we see in present time, dark humour has attained the perfect balance of benign violation and thus today every 5th joke online is a dark joke.

To the end we can conclude that every joke is offensive in a way. If you find a joke funny or not, depends entirely on you. Jokes are not meant to be dissected and over thought about. They are meant to make you laugh. The tolerance level for everyone is different in case of dark humour. As every joke carries the violation bit with it, a certain section of the society might get offended by the simplest joke. If you stumble upon a meme and it makes you laugh, you will probably like and share it with your friends. But at the same time if you find a joke, may it be dark or just a pun or something really offensive and against community guidelines, you can always report it and unfollow that particular page or group.

-Rutwij and Yash.

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1 Comment

  1. ” Every 5th joke is a dark joke”. We have criticized everything from biggest theories to an introvert, especially introverts, in my opinion dark jokes are made for you to feel light, supposing a teenage girls gets pregnant with no intent of wanting so, then shows like Teen Mom which in basic terms is made to make these teenagers feel that they are not alone, joking about sensitive issues makes it more bearable for people. We have come a very long way when talking about progression of dark jokes, and now it’s become very hard for us to know or follow the intent and relevce of the joke. It’s away from the norm ; so we enjoy it or refute it? Now we don’t care, we are free and the very little comments and ill treatments that we get for posting such things don’t bother us, so we go at it.

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