(Anybody else remember that Asimov story where the supercomputer explains what makes certain jokes funny and then NOTHING IS EVER FUNNY AGAIN? Continue reading at your own peril.)
Wired's humor issue features an interesting and mercifully not-too-quippy article about researcher Peter McGraw's attempt to come up with a single theory to explain every joke ever.
Here's his theory in a nutshell, but whole thing is worth a read:
He 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.
The theory they lay out: “Laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign.” That is, they perceive a violation—”of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bedpan, strange behaviors), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviors)”—while simultaneously recognizing that the violation doesn’t pose a threat to them or their worldview.
Ultimately, McGraw determined that funniness could be predicted based on how committed a person is to the norm being violated, conflicts between two salient norms, and psychological distance from the perceived violation.
The whole thing is worth a read, though. Other topics discussed include: whether marijuana makes things funnier; how the benign-violation theory is currently being applied to craft internet memes; and what Louis CK thinks of McGraw's theory.
For more, Wired just posted a podcast accompaniment to the story.