A note from a comedian

I occasionally receive emails from (real) people commenting on the benign violation theory. Sometimes the message is critical. And sometimes complimentary.

I received this message from a comedian (who asked to remain anonymous). It’s a thoughtful take connecting the theory to comedy:

Dear Dr. McGraw —

What interests me most about BVT (aside from its clear evolutionary roots in play-fighting, etc., which also interests me) is the implication that humor hinges on two sometimes-moving targets. Obviously, boundaries of violation and zones of benignity vary by culture (and even subculture) but we also know they shift over time as well.

But it’s the way they shift that interests me most, because it doesn’t appear to me that they shift uniformly within a culture. It seems to me (based on what I’m seeing as a fairly new stand-up enthusiast) that there are times when generational displacement becomes the key driver in the shifts.

I think this happened in the 60’s (dating from about Mort Sahl through the Smothers Brothers and the Carlin/Pryor “conversions”), when the cultural divide simply became too wide for comics to straddle, and they were essentially forced to choose one side of the divide over the other. (Bob Hope, who had built his earlier career without any political angle, moved in the opposite direction as the divide grew.)

I think it’s happening now as well, albeit less dramatically, with the arrival of the Millennials. Although I’m in my 50’s, I find that my material works better with them than it does with people my own age, and I think it’s because my own sense of violation and benignity tracks more closely with theirs than it does with people my own age, in spite of my almost complete lack of pop-culture references. (I have to Google about a fourth of their jokes to even know what they’re talking about most of the time, but because I’m operating within essentially the same moral boundaries, they have no difficulty relating to my jokes.)

Another manifestation of this split can be seen in the Facebook discussion groups of stand-up comics, as the following thread appears with clockwork regularity:

COMIC #1: Complains about “PC triggers” and “social justice warriors.”

COMICS #2-15: Counter by complaining about racist, misogynistic, homophobic “dinosaurs.”

So I think the social boundaries are changing, but not in a neat, uniform way, and comics are struggling to navigate some very deep splits in audience sensibilities at this time.

In any case, BVT seems to do a better job at addressing these shifts and tying them back to the evolutionary roots than anything else I’ve seen so far.

Best Regards,


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