Why do we find things funny? Graphic designer Danyang Ma on her algorithm for stand-up comedy

The New York-based designer creates an algorithm revealing the formulaic violations within stand-up comedy.

31 July 2020

Ever wondered how comedy differs from region to region? How much does our sense of humour depend on our culture, gender, ethnicity? While design is often considered synonymous with problem solving, this is one specific topic that intrigued Danyang Ma, and one she chose to explore further in The Algorithm for Stand-Up Comedy. Born and raised in Beijing, Danyang later moved to Shanghai to study visual communication before journeying to the US to complete amMaster’s degree at Pratt Institute.

Currently residing in New York, Danyang experienced this difference in humour first hand when she moved continents. After graduating, she would go on to work for the likes of &Walsh and Gretel, all the while keeping up with personal projects like The Algorithm for Stand-Up Comedy. Inspired by her pre-lockdown experiences of living in New York, she made this project in the hopes of “contributing to help build a better community.” As a designer, Danyang utilises a playful, delicate aesthetic to tackle prevalent societal issues observed around her.

Witnessing New York’s stand-up comedy culture, she became interested in how violations are perceived differently depending on collective identities. In short, what may seem funny to one group of people identifying in similar social groups, may not be funny to others. She came across the idea of “benign violation”, a mechanism of humour proposed by the Humour Research Lab which dictates that in order for humour to occur, three conditions must be satisfied. Firstly, the situation is a violation, secondly the situation is benign and thirdly, both perceptions occur simultaneously.


Danyang Ma: The Algorithm for Stand-Up Comedy

Danyang observed how jokes performed by this standard led to the normalisation of racism and sexism in most instances. She tells us on the project, “According to interviews conducted during my project, I found that audiences are less sensitive if the butt of the joke doesn’t relate to themselves. Also, females are more sympathetic and feel violated more easily to these jokes.” In turn, Danyang wanted to find a way to visually communicate her findings. The crux of the project came down to this question at hand: “How can designers generate a visual narrative to advocate for diverse and cross-cultural communication through the language of stand-up comedy?”

The solution wasn’t easy. Communicating such a conceptual idea based on human behavioural patterns would be no mean feat. Despite that, Danyang explains: “I think speculative design and interaction can maximise a dialogical conversation. By visualising an abstract algorithm and embodying it through the remixed medium of print, website design and 3D interaction, I tried to make the concept of this project more accessible to public audiences.” She wanted to create something which could provoke discussion and circulate effectively around an online space for viewers to fully engage with.

The printed result of this project has earned Danyang a gold award from the Graphic Poster Annual 2021. Her solution for the project revolves around a conceptual algorithm which goes something like this: Butt*Teller*Audience=Violation. It’s based on how violation is perceived according to different message receivers. Danyang tells a metaphorical story of sorts, finding a way to “visualise the invisible” through the use of magnifying bubbles which frequently make an appearance throughout the project’s output.

Visually exaggerating the hidden violation within these jokes, Danyang’s design reveals the issues embedded within these formulaic jokes. “When the ‘calculated’ violation ranges between certain numbers,” she adds on her research, “that means the joke is humorous to a certain individual. If the violation if below that number, the jokes become mild and boring. If it’s even lower than that, there is a chance the audience will get offended.” By creating the work, she hope to generate a conversation around what is deemed funny and why, in relation to culture and algorithms.

Ultimately, she aims to help various collective identities empathise and engage with one another. It’s without a doubt something the world needs a lot more of at present.

GalleryDanyang Ma


The Algorithm for Stand-Up Comedy


The Algorithm for Stand-Up Comedy


The Algorithm for Stand-Up Comedy


The Algorithm for Stand-Up Comedy

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About the Author

Jyni Ong

Jyni joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in August 2018 after graduating from The Glasgow School of Art’s Communication Design degree. In March 2019 she became a staff writer and in June 2021, she was made associate editor. Feel free to drop Jyni a note if you have an exciting story for the site.


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