Dad Jokes, Benign Violations, and Ecotainment

What’s your favorite “Dad joke”?

I ask as the abundance of media posts combining Father’s Day and dad jokes led my wandering mind to consider when and whether climate change is capable of being a laughing matter. 

As we think through this, allow me to introduce a theory of humor called benign violation theory. This theory proposes that humor occurs when three conditions are satisfied:

A situation is a violation. A violation threatens one’s beliefs about how the world should be. The situation is benign. A benign situation is experienced as safe or acceptable. The perception that a situation is a violation and a situation is benign occurs simultaneously.

Thus, for a violation to produce humor, it needs to also be perceived as benign. Tickling is experienced as humorous because it is a mock physical attack. Slapstick is humorous because it is psychologically distant as opposed to a personal attack on the listener; it doesn’t quite feel “real”. Climate change, on the other hand, is very difficult to frame in benign terms. Laughter and humor signal to the world that a violation is okay, and why would one wish to convey that climate change is okay? 

Let’s approach this question from another angle. Recall how intently you listen to jokes, even bad ones. Reflect upon your desire to hear a joke’s ending and establish whether you “got it” and in turn to express your approval or disapproval. Jim Poyser’s Ain’t Too Late show is brilliant in part because it exemplifies how ha-ha can lead to aha.

The 14th principle of the Earth Charter addresses how the knowledge, values, and skills needed for a sustainable way of life ought to be integrated into formal education and life-long learning. As you seek to inspire others to think and behave differently, please don’t discount the role that humor plays in creating a captive audience. Let’s stop being so darn serious and recognize that climate change communication and entertainment can and must co-exist.

May you find and create meaningful merriment,

-by Ali O'Malley

Earth Charter