You’re sitting across from someone. They’re cute. You like them. You like them so much you tell a joke. It is a good joke, you think. And then you’re met with deafening silence. You have never heard such silence. Now is the most silent the world has ever been. Where did you go wrong?
According to Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, two humor scientists and co-authors of The Humor Code, the problem is simple. You just violated what they call the “Benign Violation theory” of humor. As McGraw, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, tells Co.Create, a good joke is a balancing act. “Humor arises when something seems wrong, unsettling, or threatening (a kind of violation), but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable, or safe,” he says.
That means your clunker clunked in one of two ways. Either it was “too benign, and therefore boring” (what up, Jay Leno) or it was “too much of a violation, and therefore offensive.” Think of it like a Venn diagram, where one circle is all the safe stuff, and the other circle is all the stuff that freaks people out. A good joke lands in the sweet spot, where the circles intersect.
With that in mind, do better next time. But don’t beat yourself up, Warner adds. “The best comedians hone their material scientifically,” he says, finding the right balance by “experimenting bit by bit.” So practice! Or, you know, just lean into fart jokes — Warner says that shit never fails. (Please don’t, though?)