If you really stop to think about it, McGraw continued, it’s a complex and fascinating phenomenon. If someone touches you in certain places in a certain way, it prompts an involuntary but pleasurable physiological response. Except, of course, when it doesn’t. “When does tickling cease to be funny?” McGraw asked. “When you try to tickle yourself … Or if some stranger in a trench coat tickles you.” The audience cracked up. He was working the room like a stand-up comic.
Many would assert that this tickling conundrum is the perfect evidence that humor is utterly relative. There may be many types of humor, maybe as many kinds as there are variations in laughter, guffaws, hoots, and chortles. But McGraw doesn’t think so. He has devised a simple, Grand Unified Theory of humor—in his words, “a parsimonious account of what makes things funny.” McGraw calls it the benign violation theory, and he insists that it can explain the function of every imaginable type of humor. And not just what makes things funny, but why certain things aren’t funny. “My theory also explains nervous laughter, racist or sexist jokes, and toilet humor,” he told his fellow humor researchers.
In January 2004, Lilas Rajaee-Moore, head of the Denver Treatment Assessment Screening Center, the substance-abuse component of the Denver juvenile probation department, knocked on the door of Division Chief Steve Cooper, the officer in charge of patrol for the Denver Police Department, and said she had a “kick-ass idea,” one she’d already run by DPD chief Gerry Whitman: Cooper should assign some of his cops to work with Rajaee-Moore’s new substance-abuse program.