What Makes Some Ebola Jokes Okay?

For anyone who spends a lot of time online, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people are, in this Reddit thread and elsewhere, currently in the process of trying to come up with the funniest Ebola jokes possible. This is what certain sorts of people do, after all — seek to violate taboos the moment they come into existence.

As some comedians are fond of pointing out, basically anything can be joked about if you do it the right way. Ebola would seem to be a particularly tough subject — it is, after all, killing a lot of people at this very moment, so anyone attempting to joke about it has to scale a rather imposing initial wall of tastelessness.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. Take these Ebola jokes, for example, all of which an admittedly small sample of New York staffers agreed were (1) at least decently funny, and (2) not horribly offensive:

-From Clickhole: “Ebola In The U.S.: Will It Ever Be Bad Enough To Where We Get To Stay Home From Work?”

-From some random corner of the internet:

-From Twitter: someone who subsequently made the Tweet private wrote “how to cure Ebola https://pbs.twimg.com/media/BzNWbd7IIAECiqb.jpg” — the link is to this photo:

Why do these jokes work? Benign violation theory, a “general theory of humor” (are you laughing yet?) developed by Peter McGraw, a University of Colorado - Boulder psychology professor, in collaboration with Caleb Warren of Texas A&M, can offer up some insight here.

According to the theory, “humor occurs when and only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is a violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously.”

So how does this apply to the three jokes above? In all three situations, the violation is pretty obvious: We’re joking about a terrifying, tragic disease. But then think about the other elements: complaining about work, calling Sarah Palin dumb, and considering Beyoncé to be fierce. For most people, these are rather bland, benign expressions of opinion. So the jokes pull off a balancing act: We have the horror of Ebola, yes, but it sits alongside much more common, familiar subjects of jokes — and opinions that everyone (or at least everyone who’s the target audience) can agree with.

And, importantly, the jokes don’t target Ebola victims — as McGraw put it in an email, “the successful jokes use Ebola to make fun of someone other than an Ebola victim.” There are surely jokes floating around the internet that do target victims, but it’s likely they have a much narrower audience. (Maybe the same people who still watch Family Guy.)

So for those of you who truly have nothing better to do and are hoping to write the next great Ebola joke, your mission is clear: Read up on benign violation theory, find an uncontroversial target, and then hit the least mature Reddit thread you can find.