The science of laughter



Did you hear the one about the professor who was confounded by a question at a conference, used that moment to think up a lab devoted to humor, co-wrote a pretty funny book, and inspired wry commentaries about rankings of cities for their funniness?

That would be Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. McGraw’s Humor Research Lab—HuRL—describes itself as a group that uses social and cognitive psychology to conduct \”the scientific study of humor, its antecedents, and its consequences.\”

It’s not a workplace filled with hand buzzers, whoopee cushions, and rubber chickens, McGraw assured me in a phone chat; it’s filled with the standard cubicles and computers. But, by design, it may be a little more \”cheerful and lighthearted\” than the average lab. \”If we’re laughing, we’re creating a positive emotion. It’s very clear that humor helps stimulate creativity.\”

McGraw considers himself a cheerful and lighthearted person. It helped to grow up with a sister who laughed at all his jokes. He regularly resorts to self-deprecating humor; he likes to reinforce the notion that \”work and play don’t have to be opposites, that they can be complements.\” Humor can misfire, of course, and having a sense of humor may not ease the path to academic stardom. One colleague advised McGraw: \”Studying humor is normally a career killer.\”

McGraw said he didn’t know a lot of good professor jokes, though he tried one out on me that he’s been using in talks: \”I’d like to play a game. It’s called Professor and Hobo—no disrespect to hobos.\” The joke plays with the listener, he said, by seeming at first to target hobos and then inverting power relationships. I tried a joke out on him, courtesy of a website (Tickld) that, somewhat pretentiously, offers \”20 Jokes That Only Intellectuals Will Understand\”: \”What do you get when you cross a joke with a rhetorical question?\”

OK, so both jokes barely registered on the recipient’s joke-o-meter. But are campuses funny places? McGraw thinks they are, in part because they’re filled with smart people (humor demands intelligence), in part because they have aspects of being both idyllic and unsettled (with all those hypercharged young people stuffed together in close quarters). \”By the way, college food is much better than what you and I knew. It’s not the source of jokes that it used to be.\”

College food doesn’t show up in The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, which McGraw co-wrote with the Denver-based journalist Joel Warner. But a lot more does: The New Yorker cartoon-caption contest, dangerous humor concerning images of the Prophet Muhammad, Israelis and Palestinians as subjects of satire, a laughing epidemic in Tanzania, kimono-clad Japanese performing comic soliloquies. Maybe McGraw wants to bring peace to the world by making it funnier.

That reading of his mission struck him as funny, but not terribly off-base. Cracking the humor code, he said, means discerning what humor is all about and then encouraging people \”to appreciate and produce humor more often and more successfully in their lives.\”

The idea for HuRL occurred to McGraw after he gave a talk, in the spring of 2008, at Tulane University about the feelings of disgust engendered by the dubious marketing practices of presumably upstanding organizations. He mentioned an evangelical church that was giving away a Hummer in a raffle. Laughter ensued. Someone in the audience asked how it could be that everyone found that particular moral violation funny. McGraw was stumped. As he thought about it, he reminded himself that he had spent a decade or so puzzling over emotions, but had not considered how humor fit into the puzzle.

\”I couldn’t believe this wasn’t being studied more seriously and more broadly,\” he told me. \”When you get down to it, humor is not only among the most important but also among the most perplexing parts of being human. Humor is important in decisions about the entertainment we consume, the friends and partners we find. There’s the alleged influence of humor in coping with setbacks. And there are the potential bad effects of humor: Humor can be used to bully people, to exclude people, to hurt people’s feelings. Even well-intentioned jokes can go awry and fail.\”

Humor has been thought about as long as people have explored the human experience—at least as far back as the ancient Greeks, McGraw notes in his book. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, said that only \”a buffoon\” will spare \”neither himself nor others for a laugh.\” Freud speculated in Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious that there might be an analogy between \”the technique of jokes and the dream-work,\” and that the comic effect might arise from \”the uncovering of the modes of thought of the unconscious.\” Fifty years ago, Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation, reasoned that sophisticated forms of humor \”evoke mixed, and sometimes contradictory, feelings.\” Whatever the mixture, humor \”must contain one ingredient whose presence is indispensable: an impulse, however faint, of aggression or apprehension.\”

But those who philosophized about humor were engaging only in thought experiments, says McGraw; he is after a more rigorous understanding. So he’s worked with colleagues to publish studies with colon-laden titles like \”Beyond Incongruity: Differentiating What Is Funny From What Is Not,\” \”When Humorous Marketing Backfires: Uncovering the Relationship Between Humor, Negative Affect, and Brand Attitude,\” and \”The Rise and Fall of Humor: Psychological Distance Modulates Humorous Responses to Tragedy.\”

In his book, McGraw discusses the lack of a grand theory of humor and proposes his own \”benign-violation theory.\” Humor occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling, or threatening—that is, a violation, like a church raffling off a Hummer—but simultaneously seems acceptable or safe, as with a church’s need to replenish its coffers. The theory emerged from work with his collaborator Caleb Warren, when Warren was a doctoral student at Colorado. It also builds on the ideas of Thomas Veatch, who once taught linguistics at Stanford University. Veatch, who has since \”dropped off the academic radar,\” as McGraw puts it, outlined his own theory in a 1998 issue of Humor: International Journal of Humor Research.

Maybe it was a funny coincidence—or smart marketing—but HuRL earned some amusing headlines this spring, just a couple of weeks after the book’s release date. The lab ranked the funniest among America’s 50 largest cities, using an algorithm that fed off such factors as the number of working comics and comedy clubs per capita, funny local tweeters, visits to funny websites, and surveys of residents to gauge their \”need for levity.\” Take a bow, Chicago: Bad weather and bad public transit produce good jokes. The Big Apple registers as a big disappointment, with a No. 6 ranking. Fort Worth, at No. 50, is about as funny as an ill-fitting cowboy hat.

Imagine a college-rankings system based on humor, I suggested, with the Humor Lab put to work analyzing cartoons taped on the doors of faculty offices, student improv groups, and self-deprecating descriptions in admissions essays. McGraw laughed at the thought, which I took to be a respectful, not a mocking, laugh.

Whether it’s applied to campuses or cities, benign-violation theory assumes some degree of psychological distance: not enough distance, and the joke offends; too much, and it bores. If you find the sweet spot, you can produce a laugh. And maybe more than that.

The book follows the authors into the Peruvian rain forest, where they join 100 clowns who visit an old-folks’ home, a shelter for abandoned children, and a local prison, engaging lightheartedly with—as the book describes it—\”the poorest part of the poorest part of a country that’s fairly poor to begin with.\”

All that clowning around spreads good cheer. But McGraw is skeptical of the notion, given prominence in Norman Cousins’s Anatomy of an Illness, that laughter is the best medicine. \”The research is still sparse, and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done,\” he told me. \”Humor is not always the best medicine: Sometimes you just need that penicillin shot.\” But humor helps in three ways, he explained to me.

\”A positive emotional state is a benefit in helping us deal with the stresses and strains of being human. Second, having a good sense of humor helps us to rally social support around us when times are tough. Having people in your corner during tough times is very good for you. There’s clear research around that. Third, and most intriguing to me, is that making jokes about the challenges in life can fundamentally change the way we think about those challenges.\”

His best example of that process of constructive reappraisal is the post-9/11 issue of The Onion, America’s finest (satirical) news source. One headline was \”Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell.\” The effect, McGraw said, \”was to create situations where we could laugh at the terrorists. It actually defeated the purpose of terrorism, which is to scare people.\”

The book spends a lot of time on stand-up comics, some of whom are scarily awkward at discussing their craft, some of whom are scarily inept at practicing it—including McGraw, who, evolving into his own research subject, gets onstage at a couple of comedy clubs. He’s introduced by one MC as \”a moderately funny professor.\” The book’s most memorable character, though, may be not a stand-up comic, but (the quite prone) Alex Mitchell, a British bricklayer who had an attack of laughter—for 25 minutes straight—around an episode of a sketch-comedy show. He then slumped dead onto his sofa, his heart having given out from the strain.

Reminded of that story, McGraw told me, \”If I had a choice, that’s a pretty good way to go.\” But, he assured me, he has a lot of work ahead of him before he analyzes his last joke—before, that is, he makes the world more understandable and more tolerable for the rest of us.

Author Bio: Robert J. Bliwise, editor of Duke Magazine, teaches magazine journalism at Duke University.