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updated 9/18/2012 1:58:32 PM ET 2012-09-18T17:58:32

A new study helps explain why Sarah Silverman can make us laugh about racism, how the Onion manages to poke fun of religious intolerance in the midst of violent unrest in the Middle East, and how a broken bone can become funny after the initial pain has subsided.

For terrible events, the key is to get enough distance before cracking jokes, the new study found. When mishaps are mild, on the other hand, it usually works best to joke about them right away.

There's a sweet spot, in other words, when it's not too soon or too late to go for a laugh. With enough practice, comedians can time their jokes just right, offering both levity and catharsis.

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"If you're able to see how things that are wrong in the world, things that are threatening, things that cause you fear, stress and anxiety are actually going to be OK, that can help make life a little big lighter, a little more playful and a little more humorous," said Peter McGraw, director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, Boulder. "That can help transform these things from something that seems so bad to something that's not so bad."


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"Coping is something that's fundamental to humor and humor is fundamental to coping," he added. "Laughter may not be the best medicine. But it is nonetheless good medicine."

Every good joke, according to some humor theorists, has its roots in a negative experience or some other kind of "wrong." Even puns strike a chord, McGraw said because they violate language norms, which can be funny to people who care about grammar and words. On the flip side, Seinfeld entertained viewers for years with episodes that turned normal scenarios into wrongs.

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To better understand how torture and other major violations manage to become fodder for comedy, McGraw and colleagues turned to some previous research showing that psychological distance can help make tragedies seem funnier. As Mark Twain once said, "Humor is tragedy plus time."

In a series of five studies, the researchers asked people to rate the humor level of various memories, pictures and stories. Across the board, the researchers reported in the journal Psychological Science, distance made tragedies seem funnier.

In one scenario, for example, participants said they would be more likely to think a car accident was funny if it happened five years ago than if it happened yesterday. When it came to stubbing a toe, though, the minor event was definitely funnier if it had happened more recently.

Time isn't the only kind of distance that accentuates humor. Emotional and physical distance make a difference, too.

When participants read about a woman who had inadvertently donated either $2,000 or $50 to charity via text message, they thought the smaller amount was funnier if they imagined that the woman was a close friend. But if she was a stranger, the mistaken donation of a larger sum elicited more amusement.

In another experiment, people saw weird and disturbing images of a man with a beard full of icicles or a guy who seems to be sticking his finger through his nose and out of his eye. The images seemed funnier to people if they looked smaller and farther away.

Altogether, the findings suggest that mild wrongs are funnier if we move closer to them, while major wrongs are funnier if we move away -- either physically or symbolically. That kind of insight can help people understand when it's OK to joke about something and when it's too soon or too late.

"There are a lot of misfires or mistakes that people make by telling the wrong joke at the wrong time," said Gil Greengross, a humor researcher at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. "Timing is everything in comedy. And if someone is hurt about something, you usually don't want to make fun of it or attack the situation directly. It's inappropriate to go to a house where someone just died and then make a joke about it."

With time and space, though, laughter can play a serious role in lightening moods and offering a sense of stability in the midst of tragic and unsettling situations. Even Holocaust survivors often joked about concentration camps and their Nazi captors, Greengross said, giving them control over their psychological condition even if they couldn't change what was happening to them.

"Jokes didn't really change anything about their reality," he said. "But they changed how they felt about their reality, and at least they had control over that."

© 2012 Discovery Channel

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