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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.


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.