Warner on Veatch

by Joel Warner
(the following was cut from Joel's Wired Magazine lead article of May 2011)

Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead.

Tom Veatch puzzled over this joke for years. “I first heard it in ’85 or ’86, and laughed for like an hour,” he tells me over the phone from his home in Seattle. “But when I told it to anyone else, nobody laughed.”

That didn’t make sense to him, so he thought long and hard about it – as he did about most things. Growing up, he says he was a loner who turned to books, eventually reading every title in his grade-school library. It was the first inklings of a prodigious mind that, according to Veatch, would later dream up a design for an mp3 player long before anyone had heard of mp3s and a visual phonetics chart that he thinks could teach literacy skills to downtrodden people around the world.

But before those endeavors, he decided to explain humor. So, after writing a 330-page dissertation on English vowels and landing a visiting assistant professor job at Stanford, he sat down in his office one day in 1992 and attempted to make sense of the dead monkey. Within a few hours, he had what he calls the N+V Theory, the idea that humor only occurs when someone perceives something to be wrong or a violation (V) while simultaneously realizing that the situation is okay or normal (N).

The N+V Theory seemed to explain the dead-monkey joke; the lifeless monkey was clearly a violation but the situation was okay because Veatch didn’t have much attachment to the primate. But the premise also worked for every other kind of humor Veatch could think of. Like slapstick: Falling down the stairs, a physical violation, is only funny if nobody's hurt. And a dirty joke trades on moral or social violations, but it only gets a laugh if the person listening is liberated enough to consider risqué subjects normal. Puns can be seen as violations of linguistic norms, though only cerebral types care enough about the violation to chuckle.

Even tickling, long a stumbling block for other humor theorists, seemed to be explained by the N+V concept, since it involves somebody violating someone else's physical space in an okay way. People can't tickle themselves because it isn't a violation. Nor will most people laugh if a creepy stranger tries to tickle them, since nothing about that is normal.

After setting his conjecture on paper, Veatch read up on every comedy analysis he could find. None of it, he says, came close to what he’d come up with. So, in 1998, he published “A Theory of Humor” in Humor: International Journal of Humor Research and waited for a response. And waited.

“There was kind of a deafening silence,” he says. It wouldn’t be the last time Veatch’s plans wouldn’t go as expected. After his stint at Stanford, he tried to make a go of it in the business world, but his attempt to build a speech-synthesizing e-mail reader fell through, as did Teachionary, a language-learning program he developed. So he tried other jobs: construction manager, carpenter and pizza delivery guy. In 2005, he settled on working as a plumber’s helper – “There is some thinking involved in calculating the travel and offset of piping runs and hydronic circuits” – but lately he’s been out of work.

That’s okay; the 49-year-old still has big plans. “Before I die, I want the world to be able to use this normal-and-violation method of analysis to know how to think about one person laughing and one person not laughing,” he says. “Because it is so painful, people can spend decades dealing with humiliation of not having had the tools to understand why another person is laughing and they’re not.”

I ask Veatch if he can give me an example of using the N+V Theory to deal with such a humiliation. For a minute he’s stumped; he’d never thought about it. Fishing around, he brings up how when he was little other kids used to play “ditch Tom.” They would run around the corner of a building to get away from him, then laugh hysterically when they looked back and saw him on their tail. “There is a situation where I don’t get the humor,” he says. “What is the violation? Why did they think that was funny?”

But maybe, he says, thinking aloud, it wasn’t teasing at all. Maybe it was a variation of peek-a-boo, where for those laughing the violation was losing sight of their friend, a violation that was made okay when they peeked around the corner and saw him coming their way.

“Maybe I was giving them loving, playful attention,” he says. “That is a reinterpretation of ‘I had no friends in my childhood.’ I am not sure I’m persuaded, but that would change my story. It is sort of bringing tears to my eyes.” For a moment he’s silent, breathing deeply. “It opens my eyes to the possibility to maybe things weren’t quite so bad.”

Copyright 2011, Joel M Warner, all rights reserved