Understanding Unintentional Comedy

While watching Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” — his biographical film about a Jewish man and his struggle to survive the Holocaust — chances are we aren’t expecting to find humor, much less to laugh. The movie is filled with countless atrocities and horrific events. Take, for instance, the scene in which the German SS throw a disabled man out a window to his death:

As I watched this movie with some friends a few months ago, I noticed a couple things. Most people showed disgust during this sequence, but some people — a vocal minority — laughed.

While it’s easy to rush to judgment and call those people insensitive or immature, it would be irresponsible to do so without an analysis of the situation. After showing the scene to several friends and reading YouTube comments of the video, I found out that many people found this scene humorous. Laughing was not an exceptional circumstance, but rather a common reaction.

Chances are we have all laughed at something we were not “supposed to” laugh at. Maybe repressing laughter makes us more prone to it. All that being said, doesn’t laughing at the gruesome death of a disabled man still seem odd? What is it about the way this scene is constructed that causes some of us to feel disgusted and some of us to laugh?

To help me answer this question, I turned to noted humor expert Peter McGraw, who researches at the University of Colorado at Boulder and helped develop the Benign Violation Theory (BVT) of humor. Professor McGraw kindly forwarded me a couple research papers and asked that I try to answer the question myself in the spirit of thoughtful discussion. Not only is the professor saving time, but I get to learn more in the process. Touché, professor, touché!

So without further ado, here is my analysis of this scene of “The Pianist”, and how one might find it humorous according to BVT.

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