“The Humor Code”: In Time For April Fools, Some Pertinent Research

What makes you laugh? A couple guys, one a humor researcher at the University of Colorado, Dr. Peter McGraw, and the other a journalist, Joel Warner, wanted to find out. Their book? The Humor Code: A Global Search For What Makes Things Funny, is available today, April 1st.

As described by the publisher:

In their quixotic search, they questioned countless experts, from Louis C.K. to rat-tickling researchers, and answered pressing (and not-so-pressing) questions such as, ‘What’s the secret to winning the New Yorker cartoon caption contest?’ ‘Who has the bigger funny bone—men or women, Democrats or Republicans?’ and ‘Is laughter really the best medicine?’ As a final test, McGraw uses everything they learned to attempt stand-up—at the largest comedy festival in the world.

Kare Anderson, Forbes, sets up the authors’ main premise, the Benign Violation Theory:

Can you suggest an unexpected, silly side of a familiar, embarrassing or even tragic situation? Then you’re evoking the ‘benign violation’ theory of humor, the central premise in their book. They suggest that ‘humor arises when something seems wrong or threatening, but is simultaneously playful, safe or otherwise benign.’

We are likely to laugh at a surprising conclusion. That unexpected twist at the end is also often true in self-deprecating humor.

Presented below are some of the areas of humor they studied. My main reference is Olga Khazan‘s article in The Atlantic, though the last point comes from Wayne Curtis, The Atlantic:

  • Elements of Violation That Count: Tickling, says McGraw, is a violation that makes us laugh. But you can’t tickle yourself. And you wouldn’t enjoy getting tickled by a creep, McGraw adds. Think about it.
  • The Role of Sorrow: “One of McGraw’s favorite quotes is from Mark Twain: ‘The secret source of humor itself is not joy, but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.’…There’s always been an anecdotal link between comedy and inner turmoil, but the empirical evidence has started to back it up.
  • Timing: For tragedies to be funny, there needs to be some distance from them. “’Mishaps’ meanwhile, are funnier when we’re closer to them, which is why Anthony Weiner’s Twitter misadventures featured prominently on American late-night shows…”
  • Intelligence: “’You need to be clever to see the things that are wrong in the world and to make them okay,’ McGraw said. ‘Smart people are better-read and they know more about the world. They can connect these dots.’”
  • Related to Intelligence: Almost every country has its own version of so-called “Polish jokes,” i.e., humor about stupidity.
  • Inebriation: A drunk audience won’t register benign threat or violation as readily as a sober one. McGraw “posits that drinking skews our interpretation of violation, so humor has to become more threatening in order to register as funny.”

Want some sneak peeks of The Humor Code? Slate is hosting the authors in a 10-part series of articles covering significant portions of the book.

Adam Alter, author of Drunk Tank Pink: “The Humor Code is a rollicking tour de farce that blends academic insights and amusing anecdotes to answer some of the most serious (and frivolous) questions about humor, from what makes us laugh and why we laugh at all, to how the world’s cultures came to have completely different senses of humor.”

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