Looking for Funny

This article is excerpted from A Love That Laughs by Ted Cunningham.

On walks with Amy, I look for funny. Recently we saw a sign displaying a city ordinance that I know must have been demanded by a hovering parent:

Dog Waste

Is a Threat to the

Health of Our Children,

Degrades Our Town,

& Transmits Disease.

Clean Up After

Your Pet.

Ord. #2.5.220

What helicopter parent stood up at a city hall meeting and petitioned for that ordinance and sign? Did the aldermen keep a straight face? Or did one stand up and say in protest, “How will our kids ever learn to clean poop off of their shoes with a little twig, or scrape it off on the sidewalk, then brush the remnant off in the grass?” Amy and I got several laughs off of that one sign.

We all step in manure, literally and figuratively. Instead of creating environments for our children to be perfectly safe and free from excrement, let’s teach them how to be safe in environments they can’t control. Teach them how to watch their steps. But also teach them to laugh and not go to pieces when they do “step in it.”

Unusual signs or odd behavior in others give us plenty of material to work with on a daily basis. Peter McGraw calls these disruptions to our thinking “violations.” They disrupt how we think things ought to be. But our reactions to these violations can go in different directions.

McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, the founder of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL), and the author of The Humor Code. He has a fun job researching what makes things funny. He believes that humor is pervasive and beneficial, and influences our choices. He runs HuRL with his colleague, Caleb Warren, and together they developed the Benign Violation Theory (BVT). We laugh when our brain is shocked, yes, but the Benign Violation Theory explains the difference between being shocked and laughing and being shocked and angry.

A violation is “anything that threatens the way you believe the world ought to be.” It’s a trigger in your brain that says, “Something seems wrong. That does not fit with the way I perceive the world.” The primary example he uses is someone falling down. We laugh when a person falls and is uninjured, but we don’t laugh if they are hurt. If we laugh at someone who is hurt, that is maligned humor and not healthy. The fact that the person shakes it off makes it benign.

Comedian Jason Earls does a bit in his set called “Smoking in church.” With a fake cigarette in his mouth, he requests a bulletin from an usher, sings This Is the Air I Breathe, and even “Amens” the preacher. We laugh because no one would ever think to smoke in a church service. It is a fantastic violation that is benign because it is a gentle and acceptable joke, since the chances of it ever happening are next to zilch.

What violations are passing you by? Over dinner, ask your spouse, “Did you see anything funny today?” On your next date night, errand, or ride to church, spend some time watching people. Not for the purpose of making fun of them, but for the opportunity to see some of the craziness that lies in all of us. Observe more and you will laugh more.


A Love That Laughs by Ted Cunningham

One of the secrets of a great marriage is laughing together. Couples don’t need to choose between work and play, duty and fun, laughter and responsibility. This book will help couples learn how to use fun, humor, and laughter to lighten the load of everyday life, reduce stress, and grow closer together.

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