n case you haven’t noticed, funny tees have been extremely popular as of late, with no indication of slowing down. In fact, on Etsy alone, there are over 93,000 results for ‘funny graphic tee’. If you haven’t considered adding the style to your custom apparel offerings, now is definitely the time.

Now, we know what you’re thinking—what exactly makes something funny? Is there a formula you can easily recreate for your own tees?

As it turns out, scientists and philosophers have been pondering several theories behind humor for hundreds of years. While it may not be an exact formula, understanding why people think situations are funny can inspire ideas for your creative new apparel.

To help provide some direction, we narrowed it down to the top three comedy theories. Let’s take a look!

The Top Three Comedy Theories Explained

1. Benign Violation Theory

[Image source: BoldGalCo on Etsy]

Linguist Thomas Veatch published the basis of benign violation theory in the late ‘90s, stating that humor happens when something “seems wrong or unsettling but is actually benign [not harmful].” However, Joel Warner and Peter McGraw actually coined the name ‘benign violation theory’ a decade later—building it out a bit further. They proposed that we laugh at violations of social norms (strange behaviors, picking nose), morals (disrespectful behavior, sexist jokes), normal language patterns (puns, using an incorrect word in place of a similar sounding one) and so on, as long as they’re not threatening.

#Humor happens when something seems wrong or unsettling, but is actually benign. - Thomas VeatchCLICK TO TWEET

Take a close look at the words featured on the t-shirt above. The phrase “I wet my plants” is a garden pun, and plays off of wetting your pants and watering plants. On the one hand, it seems as though it doesn’t make sense—and like a social norm violation, because adults generally don’t wet their pants (or at least talk about it)—but, it makes total sense to those with a green thumb. Because of this duality, the pun is a “violation of a normal language pattern” and also “benign,” which fits the theory. Gardeners, plant lovers, and florists alike would definitely wear something like this and find it funny since watering plants is a common task they can relate to.

Pro Tip: Think of a few activities, sports or hobbies and try and come up with some puns or strange behaviors that relate to each, making sure they aren’t threatening (offensive). Then play around with funny sentences or sketch some funny artwork to see what you come up with.

2. Bergson’s Mechanical Theory

[Image source: BossiEverything on Etsy]

Bergson’s mechanical theory is the idea that things are funny because they’re true. In fact, it’s why many comedies rely on predictable patterns of behavior that we see and do in our everyday lives. We often laugh at jokes that remind us of our own quirks, or even the behavior of our friends, families and co-workers.                  

A shirt in line with this theory is the Dwight graphic tee featured above. For example, in The Office, Dwight loves to contradict what people are saying by using irrelevant facts to make himself look smarter. When he does this, he’ll often start by saying, “FALSE.” Someone watching this play out might think, “I know a guy from work who is a total Dwight.” Or, you might watch it and think, “Wow, that’s totally me!”, and because it speaks your personality, it might be funny to you to wear a shirt like the one above.

Pro Tip: Think of some quirky things you, or people you know, do or say and write them down. Throw in some fun personality traits too. Then use this list to outline general ideas for a funny design that anyone could relate to.

3. Release Theory

[Image source: 229DesignShop on Etsy]

The release theory is the idea that laughter happens as a result of tension breaking between people. An example of this theory is when a person breaks the awkward silence after meeting someone they think is cute and uses the pick-up line, “Did it hurt? …When you fell from Heaven?”

However, psychologist Robert Priest went further, noting that if the tension felt by a group of people was ‘strong’ rather than ‘moderate’, it could invoke frustration instead of humor. An example of this would be trying to break the ice by telling a joke about feminists to a feminist group. It’s probably not going to be received too well.

With that said, a good example of this theory in practice would be the “dad joke” shirt above. Dads and lame jokes are synonymous, and almost a right of passage. But since they always create that tension in the room, where people may feel pressured to pretend that their jokes are funny, wearing this this shirt is a perfect anecdote for making everyone feel at ease, when they don’t laugh.

Pro Tip: Jot down some funny pick-up lines or think of phrases or situations people use to break tension in the room. Are there any that make sense as a slogan or graphic tee? Show them to your family and friends to get their opinion, then create a few test shirts and see what sells.

Now that you’re familiar with the top theories behind why things are funny, you can use the philosophies as a guide in developing your own funny tees. Just remember, think about who your niche audience is first, then brainstorm possible situations they could relate to.

Ready to stock up on basics and start screen printing your own funny tees? Check out our extensive selection of quality brands on the S&S Activewear website.

Apr 10, 2019
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