Why is falling so funny?

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SlushCupWipeout

The other morning while we were walking our dogs, my husband slipped on some snow and fell down in front of me. One moment he was stepping over a log, and the next he was on his back, feet up in the air. I laughed hysterically.

He wasn’t hurt. Nor was he amused. And his grumpiness just made the whole episode that much more comical. I couldn’t stop laughing, even after he pointed out that it was actually kind of mean to giggle over his misfortune. I agreed that it was rotten of me, yet I couldn’t stop smirking.

And that got me wondering — why is it so funny when someone falls?

Turns out, scientists are on it. I’ll explain their findings in a minute. But first, notice how many examples of this kind of humor circulate on the internet. Here are three of them, starting with the Ice Man. I dare you not to laugh.

 

Here’s another example, starring a longboarder and a deer.

 

Ok, one more. Ow, My Balls! (from the movie Idiocracy.)

Peter McGraw is an associate professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the director of the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL). He and his colleague Caleb Warren have developed a theory that explains why it’s so funny when people fall down. Their benign violation theory proposes that something is funny if three conditions are met. First, ordinary life is somehow thrown off balance. They call this a violation — “anything that threatens the way you think the world ought to be.”  Second, this violation is benign. No one gets hurt. Finally, these first two conditions must happen simultaneously.

McGraw and his team published a study last year offering some empirical evidence for their theory. In a series of five experiments, the researchers asked participants to rate the funniness of various anecdotes. For instance, in one iteration they asked college students to rate which is more humorous: stubbing your toe five years ago or stubbing your toe yesterday? In another trial, volunteers were asked to give a humor rating to a text message indicating that the sender had accidentally donated $2,000 or $50 to a charity.

The results showed a clear pattern — proximity and seriousness matter. A tragedy can only be funny when it happens to someone you don’t know (Darwin awards), whereas mishaps like a stubbed toe are most humorous when they happen to someone close to you. If a stranger loses $50 it’s hardly amusing, but if it’s your brother, it’s hilarious. Likewise, you’re more likely to laugh when a stranger yells, “ow, my balls!” than when your son does.

The theory does a pretty good job of explaining why I couldn’t stop laughing when Dave tumbled on our trail. His fall was was a violation — he’s normally extremely sure-footed, and I’m the bumbler in our relationship. (I’ll admit that this turn of events made me feel a bit smug.) Finally, his fall was benign. If he’d been hurt, it would have ceased to be funny. Of course if it were me, it wouldn’t have been funny at all.

Images: Slush Cup wipeout by Alaskan Dude (Frank Kovalchek).

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5 thoughts on “Why is falling so funny?

  1. & i.e. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton. Classic silent comedy was largely built on pratfalls. Sounds like your husband is a natural.

  2. I think there’s something missing from this analysis. I find fail videos funny if there’s a degree of hubris, in other words, people attempting something because “hey, what could go wrong?” It’s the combination of trying something daft (or without thinking it through), coupled with that “oh shit” moment. Situations that are contrived (like the third video) aren’t that funny. But the hubris of jumping onto a frozen pool assuming you’ll simply break through, coupled with the shock of the unexpected result makes the first video humorous (but not as awesome as http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YOUKjHyoEjM )

  3. Great point Roderic. And isn’t there something especially funny about someone falling while doing something really stupid? (Like jumping into the ice pool, or that video that you shared.)

    Maybe we also laugh because we feel a little bit superior to those jackasses. Or maybe it’s a sense of relief? Because we’ve been the jackass and it’s much more fun to be the observer than the fool.

  4. As the great British writer G.K. Chesterton pointed out, it is human dignity that sets the stage for human humour:

    “Unless a thing is dignified, it cannot be undignified. Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God. It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down. No one sees anything funny in a tree falling down. No one sees a delicate absurdity in a stone falling down. No man stops in the road and roars with laughter at the sight of the snow coming down. The fall of thunderbolts is treated with some gravity. The fall of roofs and high buildings is taken seriously. It is only when a man tumbles down that we laugh. Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.”

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