Cracking the F&#%ing Humor Code

Jeff Mosenkis, a freelance producer with Freakonomics Radio, holds a Ph.D. in psychology and comparative human development.

Cracking the F&#%ing Humor Code
By Jeff Mosenkis

Just in time for Father’s Day, imagine rocking your little one to sleep with the lines:

“The windows are dark in the town, child
The whales huddle down in the deep
I’ll read you one very last book if you swear
You’ll go the F–k to sleep.”

The lines are from the new “kids” book Go the F**k to Sleep, by Adam Mansbach, which became a runaway hit after a PDF of the book was circulated online widely. It’s fully illustrated and written like a kids’ bedtime book, except for the exasperated expressions most kids might not quite understand. If you know anybody with kids, you probably got the e-mail (if not, refresh — it’s probably there by now).  Months before publication, it shot up to No. 1 on Amazon, prompting its tiny publisher to move up its publication date.

As of this writing, it’s still ranked No. 2 overall on Amazon, and first in both humor and parenting & families sections. The movie rights have been optioned.

It might seem like a long shot that a profanity-laced purported kids book from a niche publisher should be such a runaway hit, but one clue why might come from humor researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder Leeds School of Business.

A recent study from the Humor Research Lab suggests that the book’s brand of humor explains why so many people find comic Sarah Silverman so funny.

Marketing professor Peter McGraw and his former graduate student Caleb Warren published a study finding that “Benign Violations” — that is, unexpected violations of moral code, but the kind that don’t hurt anybody — seem to uniquely elicit laughter.

(BananaStock)

For some reason, most of the vignettes that researchers present to lab participants in these studies are sexual and probably can’t be published here.  Either that’s a domain where it’s easy to come up with immoral behavior that doesn’t hurt anybody, or it says something deeper about lab researchers. Regardless, consider yourself warned that at least one of vignettes follows that slapstick tradition of involving a chicken, but in a decidedly non-traditional way.

(Bonus to reading the original paper: the note to the study at the end of page 5 mentions one of the funnier unintentional foibles of trying to find an appropriate control condition).

In a recent Wired profile, McGraw posits that Sarah Silverman’s humor, saying incredibly disgusting things in a young girly voice, is funny because it’s one of those unexpected violations.  A kids’ book whose cover uses the full moon to block the title’s F-word, falls into that same category.

NOTE: Mansbach is hardly the only children’s author who knows how to swear: a writer named Robert Sayegh was booted from a plane for using the F-word. From Reuters:

“The ironic part is I’m putting a children’s book out in August so this wasn’t the kind of press I was looking for,” he added, saying there are no obscenities in the book.

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  1. jeffreytg says:

    Why is it acceptable to write F**K, but not to write Fuck? Everyone reading this knows that exactly what F**K represents. Yet, for some odd reason it is OK to use it as long as the “u” and “c” are omitted. What a strange people we are.

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    • james says:

      It’s not “us”, it’s that handful of people who’ve decided that robocensors are good things to have on their web sites. The problem (aside from the mentality that thinks they’re good) is that they have no idea of context, but just search for the forbidden words. So to most of them, it’s perfectly fine to write f**k, but not ok to write the latin name of the human species out in full, even if you happen to be discussing anthropology :-)

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    • Thom Milson says:

      @jeffreytg – I was going to exactly the same thing, but how F-word is used, when it doesn’t make any difference, it still makes us think of the word. It’s just like Louis CK’s stand up bit about the N-word

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    • Mike says:

      well it can also mean fack, which is the title of a song :)

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  2. danny says:

    if saying disgusting things in a young girly voice is funny, then so is bob sagat’s standup. he’s filthy.

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  3. Marcus Kalka says:

    It’s about time that American society’s sense of humor became drier. There’s nothing like dry humor. America’s society & culture is fertile ground for the stuff anyhow…I mean, seriously.

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  4. Mikey says:

    If you’re every trying to be a funny person, this is the easiest type of humor to come up with that elicits a good response. It’s all about juxtaposition! Saying something vulgar in the context of something benign is hilarious. This also works the other way around- put a big, tough, macho man in a leotard and make him sing and dance around and that’s funny too. Look at The Rock in “Tooth Fairy”.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      how is this research worthy….comedians have known this to be true since Voltaire wrote Candide….

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  5. Shane says:

    I’ve noticed that people who swear all the time, cheerfully and vigorously, can be much less offensive (and much funnier) than people who swear rarely. The occasional swearers are a shock, they put venon into their rare profanity.

    But the others swear so often that there is little emotion or surprise in their language. Perhaps this makes their violations ‘benign’. An example is the Canadian TV comedy Trailer Park Boys, one of my absolute favourite shows, saturated in filthy language. One of the characters uses ‘shit analogies’ in every episode:

    “You feel that Randy? The way the shit clings to the air? There’s a shit blizzard coming boy.”

    “Randy, the shit-pool is getting full. We better strain it, before it overflows and causes a shit-slide that can cover this entire community. I will not have a Pompeiian catastrophe happen in Sunnyvale!”

    There are so many shits, fucks and cocksuckers that there is nothing offensive about it – to a desensitised viewer like me anyway!

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  6. Tim says:

    The critical error in this argument is the premise that Sarah Silverman is funny

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    • Miley Cyrax says:

      One might say the only funny bone that has ever been in Sarah Silverman belongs to Jimmy Kimmel.

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    • pewlpit says:

      We hate sarah…

      …and so we’ve shared your thoughts from the pewlpit, as the lead in to this argument.

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  7. crljones says:

    What if you don’t find Silverman funny – or cute?

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  8. gjs says:

    Just read the study. 12% of people said that this sentence made them laugh:

    “Jimmy Dean decides to hire a farmer as their new spokesperson
    for the company’s line of pork products.”

    I do wonder what was in the candy bars they gave to the people for participating in the survey.

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