I saw Tom Fishburne being interviewed at NCS Fest and he was a positive, smart, happy man, so this inspired me to research him further and to watch his TED talk on ‘The Power of Laughing at Ourselves at Work’. Fishburne is a Harvard Business School graduate who cartooned his way through his degree and then through his career, until he eventually set up his own business to help other businesses develop better practices with humour and cartoons. He currently has 200,000 subscribers to receive his weekly emailed cartoon (including me). In his TED talk, Fishburne describes his core beliefs about the importance of humour and cartooning. Firstly, Fishburne claims cartoons aid a sense of belonging with shared relatable experience, that they can disarm as funnies are a benign genre (…well perhaps at first glance), and that the vulnerability of laughing at ourselves helps us feel comfortable with the uncomfortable (with truths, with situations, with ourselves and with others).
It is worth noting these ideas here, even though they are not directly about practice, as there could be useful applicable theory for future. If nothing else, there is much here that advocates the overlooked importance of humour that is beginning to be endorsed as significant by powerful corporations such as IBM and powerful business programmes such as Stanford Business School. If these kinds of powerhouses can see the significance, perhaps it could also be valued properly in academia more widely.
Fishburne makes interesting connections to business and research broadly with some interesting commentary on the importance of humour and its power in the world of business with connections made to Apple executive Hiroki Asai who notes that,
‘Fear kills creativity and humour is our most powerful tool to drive fear out of the system’
Fishburne adds that ‘the very thing that makes us feel that we can’t laugh at ourselves gets evaporated when we do’.
He believes that humour can work as a sort of salve to the many fears and stresses in business (and beyond) and Fishburne describes his own experiences working with companies cross culturally with some interesting examples in Asia. I also have plenty of relatable anecdotes from 2-years working in Hiroshima, so Fishburne does not need to do much to convince me of oppressive work environments.
He also mentions academic work by Aaker and Bagdonas of Stanford Business School and their research into 1.4 million people cross-culturally, which indicates that people over age 23 begin to lose their sense of humour and fall of the ‘humor cliff,’ as they coin this. Aaker and Bagdonas are also the founders of a humor programme at Stanford called ‘Humor: Serious Business’ because humour leads to creativity which in turns leads to innovation that is good for business (Stanford 2020). It is encouraging to see academic disciplines begin to embrace the significance of humour – if Business Studies can do this (and this is a field which has the investment of money behind), then Humanities may follow more boldy than previously. We may even see more research funding happening in future.
Fishburne also relays some interesting academic research into humour in ‘Benign Violation Theory’ by Peter McGraw (of HuRL the Humour Research Lab at Colorado University) and Caleb Warren (2010). In essence, their theory promises to resolve the question of funniness (a huge promise that I doubt is possible as funniness is just too ineffably complicated). Here is there idea in a nutshell with at core the idea that if something is ‘benign’ it can be funny:
“Laughter and amusement result from violations that are simultaneously seen as benign…of personal dignity (e.g., slapstick, physical deformities), linguistic norms (e.g., unusual accents, malapropisms), social norms (e.g., eating from a sterile bedpan, strange behaviors), and even moral norms (e.g., bestiality, disrespectful behaviors)” (McGraw and Warren 2010)
For McGraw this relates to evolutionary theory and the essential need to distinguish between benign violations and real threat. Laughter or amusement thereby is a signal of safety and that all is well. In the short view, this makes sense, although this does not appear to be particularly new and builds on the work of neuroscientist V.S Ramachandran (1998). Comedian Jimmy Carr and writer Lucy Greeves describe this ‘threat diffused’ theory of laughter entertainingly in their book ‘The Naked Jape’ (2006). They describe early man running for his life from a saber tooth tiger (or some such threatening beast) and then getting to a cliff-edge and stopping, while the tiger keeps running and plummets to its death, and the man laughs uproariously in the diffusing of the threat. OK, but humankind is a long way from these simpler times and humour construction appears more layered with its many possible situations and media outlets. In the longer view, the formula seems too simple to explain the complexity of the human and personal response to humour.
McGraw claims that funniness can be predicted based on ‘on how committed a person is to the norm being violated, conflicts between two salient norms, and psychological distance from the perceived violation’ (cited Warner 2011). At first glance, this appears a workable formula, although the elements within still demand potential complicated analysis. It might be possible to measure norms and saliency with linguistic frequency corpora, but how do you measure people for psychological distance with any objectivity?
In quick personal assessment of ‘Benign Violation Theory,’ here are two jokes, the first that I find funny and then second that I do not:
- ‘Donald Trump is apparently not as nice as he looks’ (Alexei Sayle)
- ‘82.6% of statistics are made up on the spot’ (Vic Reeves)
OK, I follow the incongruity- the conflict of frames and violations of norms in both language and behaviour, so why is one funnier than the other for me? Both jokes are ‘benign’ as neither joke poses any direct threat to my life, although both do so indirectly with Trump as a threat to the ‘free’ world, and statistics as a threat to ‘truth’ in the media and politics. Therefore, funniness must be attributed to my commitment to the joke. The stats joke fabrication makes me feel weary with its irresolvable practice everywhere. This joke feels hopeless and pointless to me perhaps indicating that I am not committed to the norm being violated, whereas I am committed to the ‘violation’ of Trump (oh dear…most unfortunately expression here). It does not appear to be this simple however, as I prefer the Sayle joke because it is a joke that keeps on going with my imagination. The stats joke stops cold with its predictability – there is nowhere for my imagination to go. Is this really about my commitment to the violation of the norm in question? Or more about the cognitive entertainment of playing with jokes that entertain the imagination at length?
Benign Violation Theory may offer a useful formula, but it does not feel like it resolves much to my mind and I still feel very much like the frog has experienced vivisection.
To sum up, I retain my reservations about the unlikely possibility of being able to assess funniness (something I consider a hiding into nothing) in a formula. However, it is gratifying to see business corporations and the field of Business Studies taking the potential of humour seriously. It is also wonderful to observe Fishburne turn a personal passion into a profitable business that contributes cross-culturally to improving the workplace. I look forward to watching his work unfold…
Aaker, J. and Bagdonas, N. (2020) ‘Humor: Serious Business’ – ‘a Stanford Graduate School of Business Course’ available at:
https://humor-seriousbusiness.stanford.edu/ [accessed 15.09.2020]
Carr, J. and Greeves, L. (2006) The Naked Jape Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes. London: Penguin.
Fishburne, T. (2020) Tom Fishburne ‘Marketoonist,’ available at:
https://marketoonist.com/ [accessed 18.09.2020]
Fishburne, T. (2018) ‘The Power of Laughing at Ourselves at Work’ TED talk, available at:
McGraw, P. and Warren, C. (2010) ‘Benign Violations: Making Immoral Behaviour Funny,’ Psychosocial Science, Vol. 21 (8), 1141-1149. Los Angeles: Sage. Available at:
http://leeds-faculty.colorado.edu/mcgrawp/pdf/mcgraw.warren.2010.pdf [accessed 18.09.2020]
NCS Fest, recorded 9 hours of conference and schedule available here:
https://ncsfest.com/ [accessed 14.09.2020]
Ramachandran, V. S. (1998) The Neurology and Evolution of Humor, Laughter, and Smiling: The False Alarm Theory. Medical Hypotheses, Vol 51. 351-354.
Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/S0306-9877(98)90061-5 [accessed 18.09.2020
Stanford Business School (2017) ) ‘Humor: Serious Business’ Gentry Magazine learns how Stanford Professor Jennifer Aaker and Lecturer Naomi Bagdonas, MBA ’15 are bringing humor to the classroom and business world. Available at:
https://www.gsb.stanford.edu/experience/news-history/humor-serious-business [accessed 18.09.2020]
Warner, J. (2011) ‘One Professor’s Attempt to Explain Every Joke Ever’ available at: https://www.wired.com/2011/04/ff-humorcode/ [accessed 15.09.2020]with