Posted by on October 18, 2010

Peter McGraw

Fun and funny.

What’s the difference, how can you tell and why does it matter? The connection seems to lie right below the surface, but remains as quick as a fish and twice as slippery when you try to grab it.

In one of those unscripted moments in life where things comes together in such a perfect way that it seems improbable because it all feels conveniently coincidental, I gave a speech last August at TEDx Boulder on “What makes a place fun?” while Colorado University Boulder professor Dr. Peter McGraw gave a speech titled “What makes things funny?”

Anyone following the narrative will figure that the TED event organizers just matched Pete and I up to provide some poetic symmetry and maybe stimulate some debate. But I don’t think that is the case. I was invited to speak because I research videogames and architecture. So, there really wasn’t any specific guidance on my topic. I might have ended up talking about “What do games have to do with architecture?” During a last minute deadline, I opted for the topic, “What makes a place fun?”

For me, the coincidence has more to do with the zeitgeist. Fun and funny are in the air and the TEDx Boulder organizers have a good nose for popular culture news.

So what?

On face value, there is a particular question that deserves to be answered—what is the relationship between fun and funny? Is this another coincidence, one of language? Is it just luck of the linguistic bounce that two words that seem to have a relationship clearly have a structural connection? Or is it something else? Do the words grow from a common root in meaning? Do fun and funny share more than several letters in common?
Since Peter and I gave two speeches almost side-by side, it seems worthwhile to compare the two ideas and look for a connection and to search for meaningful discrepancies. I can see both.

Peter’s theory revolves around the notion of “benign violation.” Basically, the theory holds that we think things are funny when they violate some social or psychological convention, but do it in a non-threatening way. So, we laugh when a waiter drops a tray full of plates, but not if that was our dinner he was carrying. Tickling seems the case example. We react as if we are being attacked, but we know we are not so we laugh.

My notion of fun, distilled from Brian Sutton-Smith in “The Ambiguity of Play” and D.W. Winnicott’s “Playing and Reality” assumes that what we call “fun” are things that both are and are not at the same time. So, Cinderella’s Castle in the middle of Disneyland is certainly there and it’s shaped like a castle. But it’s not really a castle in any meaningful sense of the word. And since it is both a castle and not-a –castle at the same time, it seems wondrous, fantastic and fun.

Clearly Benign Violation Theory (BVT) and fun as the is/is not share a similar structure. Both rely on things that are both there and not there. Someone mocking an ethnic group at a comedy club is funny, because we both get the violation (you should not make fun of a minority group) along with the benign nature of the mockery (I’m only kidding!”). This matches the fun theory which would hold this is fun because the person IS mocking a minority group but IS NOT (“I’m only kidding”). If for a moment we think that the person is deadly serious, well then, we have left the comedy club and entered the no-fun world of political hate.

Where I see the big difference is this:

I propose that everything that is funny is fun. But not everything that is fun is funny. Laughing is always fun. But taking a nap may be fun, but it’s not funny.

The reason for this I think is a fundamental distinction between funny as a specific psychological effect and fun as a broader philosophical phenomenon. In a simple sense, fun subsumes funny, and by implication, is/is not consumes BVT.

This observation is not meant to collapse funny into fun. But to recognize that funny is a specific form of is/is not. The benign (the is) and its contracting violation (the is not), creates an explosive collision that results in laughter. In the process, the benign consumes the violation, otherwise the laughing stops. But fun is a more contingent and ongoing state, where the categories do not collapse, but stay present, neither consuming nor being consumed by the other.

Of course, this is a cocktail napkin sketch of the relationship, As such, this is a conversation started. And be sure to check out Pete’s thoughts on the same idea on his blog.

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