About the Author
Peter McGraw, a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder where he directs HuRL (the Humor Research Lab), is a leading expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics. His work has been covered by NPR, Nightline, The Wall Street Journal, Scientific American, The New York Times and the BBC. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Joel Warner, an award-winning former staff writer for Westword, Denver’s alternative newsweekly, has written for Wired, The Boston Globe, Slate, Grantland, and other publications. He lives in Denver, Colorado.
The Humor Code 1
We walk into the Squire Lounge just as the Denver watering hole is gearing up for its weekly open-mike comedy night. Looking around, Pete grins. “This is fantastic!” he yells over the ruckus, sounding like a field biologist who’s just discovered a strange new animal species. The mirrored walls display awards for “Best Dive Bar in Denver,” the stench of industrial cleaner hangs in the air, and the sound of clanging beer bottles blends into the police sirens wailing through the night outside. The clientele sports tattoos and ironic mustaches, lumberjack shirts, and plastic-rimmed glasses.
Pete is wearing a sweater vest.
The professor sticks out here like a six-foot-five, 40-year-old sore thumb. He’s also calm for someone who’s about to do stand-up for the first time. Or for someone who’s been warned that this open mike is the toughest one around. As a local comic put it to me, “If you fail at the Squire, you will not only fail hard, but then you will be cruelly, cruelly mocked.”
Rolling up the sleeves of his button-down shirt, Pete orders us a couple whiskeys on the rocks. “This is a welcoming crowd,” he cracks sarcastically.
I’m soon ordering another round. I don’t know why I’m the more nervous of the two of us. I have little at stake in Pete’s stand-up routine. We’ve only known each other for a few weeks, but I’d like him to succeed. I fear that’s not likely to happen.
Pete’s already working the room. He zeroes in on a woman by the pool table. She turns out to be another open-mike first-timer. “Did you think about your outfit tonight?” he asks. “I put this on so I look like a professor.”
He glances around the room. The neon Budweiser signs on the walls cast a bluish, sickly hue on the grizzled faces lined up at the bar.
Turning back to the woman, Pete offers an unsolicited piece of advice: “No joking about Marxism or the military-industrial complex.”
I’d stumbled upon Pete after having written an article about gangland shootings and fire bombings for Westword, the alternative weekly newspaper in Denver. I was eager for a palate cleanser. I hoped that it wouldn’t involve cultivating anonymous sources or filing federal open-records requests. Yes, such efforts have brought down presidents, but I’m no 31-year-old Woodward or Bernstein. I’d rather find another story like the profile I wrote of a McDonald’s franchise owner who used his arsenal of fast-food inventions to break the world record for drive-thru Quarter Pounders served in an hour. Or the coffee connoisseur I’d followed to Ethiopia in search of the shadowy origins of the world’s most expensive coffee bean. (The expedition broke down several dozen miles short of its goal thanks to caffeine-fueled bickering, impassable muddy roads, and reports of man-eating lions.)
When I heard about a Boulder professor who was dissecting comedy’s DNA, I’d found my story.
It’s true, Pete told me when I first got him on the phone. He’d started something he called the Humor Research Lab—also known as HuRL. His research assistants (the Humor Research Team, aka HuRT) were just about to run a new round of experiments. Maybe I’d like to come by and watch.
A week later, sitting in a large, white conference room at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, I witnessed Pete’s peculiar approach to humor research. Four student volunteers filed into the room, signed off on the appropriate consent forms, and then sat and watched as a somber-faced research assistant dimmed the lights and played a clip from the hit comedy Hot Tub Time Machine. After ten minutes of scatological gags and off-color sex jokes, the students filled out a questionnaire about the film. Did they find the scene in which the BMW keys were removed from a dog’s butt funny? What about the line “A taxidermist is stuffing my mom”? Or the part where a character breaks his catheter and sprays urine on everybody?
The experiment, Pete explained to me, was the latest chapter in HuRL’s attempts to understand what makes things funny. Other tests included forcing subjects to watch on repeat a YouTube video of a guy driving a motorcycle into a fence, to determine when, exactly, it ceases to be amusing. Another exposed participants to a real-life ad of an anthropomorphized lime peeing into a glass of soda, then had them drink lime cola to see if they thought it tasted like pee.
For someone like Pete, there was nothing unusual about this research. Over the course of his relatively short career, he’s haggled with casket manufacturers at a funeral directors’ convention, talked shop with soldiers of fortune at a gun show, and sung hymns at a Fundamentalist Baptist church in West Texas, all for the sake of science.
His experiments aren’t limited to his day job. The professor has a tendency to live his research, no matter the disastrous results. While he was working toward his PhD in quantitative psychology at Ohio State University, a mentor invited him to Thanksgiving dinner. Pete offered to pay for his meal just to see the reaction to the obvious faux pas.
Pete puts himself and others in uncomfortable situations to make sense of human behavior—or figure out why so much of it doesn’t make sense. There have to be logical rules behind humanity’s illogical decisions, he figures. He just has to find them. “It’s a way to keep control in an uncertain world,” Pete told me the first time we met. Growing up in a working-class town in southern New Jersey, he sometimes faced the harsh realities of that uncertain world. Yes, there was always food on the table for him and his younger sister, Shannon, but his single mother had to work two or three jobs and sometimes rely on food stamps to do it. Yes, his mom took care of them, but her headstrong and forceful manner didn’t always make her household a fun place to be. And, yes, he sported high-tops and Ocean Pacific T-shirts like the other boys in high school, but by age fourteen, he was working as a stock boy at the local Woolworth’s to pay for it all himself. Maybe that’s why ever since, he’s always been determined to keep everything tidy and under control.
I could identify with Pete’s compulsive tendencies, maybe more than I liked to admit. In an industry populated by ink-stained shlubs and paper-cluttered offices, I come off as a tad neurotic. To streamline my reporting process, I’ve assembled a small, über-geeky arsenal of digital cameras, foldaway keyboards, and electronic audio-recording pens. In the Denver home I share with my wife, Emily McNeil, and young son, Gabriel, every bookshelf is arranged alphabetically by author and segregated into fiction and nonfiction. (I’d say this drives Emily up the walls, but she’s my perfect match: as orderly and organized as they come.) In my world, unhappiness is a sink full of dirty dishes.
Pete offered me an all-access tour of his scholarly world. He explained to me that a chunk of his research could be classified as behavioral economics, the growing field of psychologists and economists who are hard at work proving that people don’t make rational financial decisions, as classical economists have long suggested. Instead, they’ve discovered, we do all sorts of odd stuff with our money. While completing his post-doctoral training at Princeton, Pete shared an office with Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize–winning psychology professor who helped establish the field. Kahneman’s office would never again be so organized.
But Pete’s interests extend well beyond behavioral economics. He’s not just interested in why people act strangely with their money. He wants to know why they act strangely all the time. A few years ago, he became fascinated by what could be the most peculiar human phenomenon of all.
While giving a talk at Tulane University about how people are disgusted when churches and pharmaceutical companies use marketing in morally dubious ways, Pete mentioned a story about a church that was giving away a Hummer H2 to a lucky member of its congregation. The crowd cracked up. And then one of the audience members raised her hand with a question. “You say that moral violations cause disgust, yet we are all laughing. Why is that?”
Pete was stumped. “I’d never thought about it,” he told me.
He decided to figure it out.
It doesn’t take long for the Squire to fill up with patrons ready to cheer—or jeer—the comics tonight. Folks are soon packed in so tightly that the communal body heat overwhelms the slowly rotating fans overhead.
“Welcome to the Squire,” cracks the night’s MC, grinning into the microphone from the bar’s cramped corner stage. “It’s the only place with an indoor outhouse.” He follows the bit up with a joke about accidentally smoking crack. The room roars, and he turns his attention to three innocent-looking audience members who’ve unwisely chosen to sit at the table closest to the stage. Soon he’s detailing the horrendous sexual maneuvers the wide-eyed threesome must perform on one another. The three, it turns out, are friends of Pete’s who thought it would be nice to cheer him on.
As the MC introduces the first of the night’s amateurs, Pete slips to the back of the room to look over his note cards. “I’m worried my routine may be a little benign,” he admits to me, as the comic on stage fires off a bit about slavery and watermelons.
I pat him reassuringly on the back, but secretly I’m glad that I’m not the one getting on stage. I’m far from spineless, but anything I’ve done that would be considered gutsy has been under the guise of reporting. I’ve always been content being the guy in the corner taking notes, the one asking the tough questions, and not the one who answers them. When one of the comedians hears there’s a Westword reporter in the house, he can’t help but make a joke about the paper’s numerous medical marijuana dispensary ads. “It should just be a bunch of rolling papers,” he ad-libs as the crowd laughs at my expense. I try, and fail, to turn myself invisible.
Other aspiring comics take their turn at the mike, trotting out one offensive subject after another: masturbation, misogyny, Jim Crow laws, drug overdoses.
It’s Pete’s turn. “This next guy isn’t a comedian,” says the MC, “but a moderately funny professor from the University of Colorado. Give it up for Dr. Peter McGraw!”
Pete bounds onto the stage and grabs the microphone from the stand—promptly disconnecting it from its cord. The audience goes silent as the professor fumbles with the device.
Comedy 1, science 0.
Pete is far from the first scholar to dive into the wild world of humor. There’s an entire academic association dedicated to the subject: the International Society for Humor Studies. Launched in 1989 as an outgrowth of an earlier organization, the World Humor and Irony Membership, or WHIM, the ISHS now includes academics from disciplines ranging from philosophy to medicine to linguistics, a group that has little in common other than a shared fascination with humor and a tendency to be snubbed by colleagues in their own fields for their offbeat scholarly interests.1
Altogether they’re a productive lot, organizing an annual international conference covering topics like “The Messianic Tendency in Contemporary Stand-Up Comedy” and “Did Hitler Have a Sense of Humor?”; founding HUMOR: The International Journal of Humor Research, a quarterly publication chock-full of fascinating reads like “The Great American Lawyer Joke Explosion” and “Fartspottings: Reflections on ‘High Seriousness’ and Poetic Passings of Wind”; and compiling the soon-to-be-released Encyclopedia of Humor Studies, a 1,000-page behemoth covering the whole of humor research from absurdist humor to xiehouyu (a humorous Chinese figure of speech).
What’s fascinating about the ISHS, though, is that its members can’t seem to agree on a single theory of what makes things funny.2
It’s not as if the experts don’t have enough humor theories to choose from. Over the centuries, efforts have been made to explain why we laugh at some things and not at others. The problem, however, is that the world has yet to agree on the right answer. Plato and Aristotle introduced the superiority theory, the idea that people laugh at the misfortune of others. But while their premise seems to explain teasing and slapstick, it doesn’t work for a simple knock-knock joke.
Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, had a different view. In his 1905 work, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, he argued that humor was a way for people to release psychic energy pent up from repressed sexual and violent thoughts. His so-called relief theory works for dirty jokes—it’s one of the few cases in polite society in which folks are at liberty to talk about their naughty bits. The theory also apparently works for Freud’s own witticisms. In 1984, enterprising humor scholar Elliot Oring set about psychoanalyzing the 200 or so jests, riddles, and pithy anecdotes in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. He concluded that the famously private psychotherapist had hang-ups around money lending, sex, marriage, personal hygiene, and, last but not least, Freud’s self-described “instructress in sexual matters,” his randy old Czech nanny.3
Score one for relief theory. Still, it’s hard to fit a lot of things people find funny, like puns and tickling, into Freud’s model. It doesn’t help that the rest of Freud’s theory of the unconscious has been abandoned by research psychologists.
Most experts today subscribe to some variation of the incongruity theory, the idea that humor arises when people discover there’s an inconsistency between what they expect to happen and what actually happens. Or, as seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal put it when he first came up with the concept, “Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees.”4 Incongruity has a lot going for it—jokes with punch lines, for example, fit this model well. But even the incongruity theory falls short when it comes to tickling or play fighting. And scientists have found that in comedy, unexpectedness is overrated. In 1974, two University of Tennessee professors had 44 undergraduates listen to a variety of Bill Cosby and Phyllis Diller routines. Before each punch line, the researchers stopped the tape and asked the students to predict what came next. Then another group of students was asked to rate the funniness of each of the comedians’ jokes. Comparing the results, the professors found that the predictable punch lines were rated considerably funnier than those that were unexpected. The level of incongruity of each punch line was inversely related to the funniness of the joke.5
There’s another dilemma with all these theories. While they all have their strengths, they also share a major malfunction: they short-circuit when it comes to explaining why some things are not funny. Accidentally killing your mother-in-law would be incongruous, assert superiority, and release pent-up aggressive tensions, but it’s hardly a gut-buster.6
It might seem that there’s no way to cover the wide world of comedy with a single, tidy explanation. But for someone like Pete, a guy who yearns for order, that wouldn’t do. “People say humor is such a complex phenomenon, you can’t possibly have one theory that explains it,” he told me. “But no one talks that way about other emotional experiences. Most scientists agree on a simple set of principles that explain when most emotions ari...
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