‘The Humor Code’ and the Science of How Comedy Works

Writing about comedy has become a cottage industry in recent years as the swelling popularity of live and online humor has birthed a new audience for comedy journalism, whether it’s Jason Zinoman’s New York Times pieces or Splitsider’s own blow-by-blow reporting on the industry.

But outside of the standup, sketch, and podcast worlds, there’s also been a larger, centuries-long search to understand the fundamental nature of humor. It’s the sort of quest that electrifies certain comedy nerds while making others wince at the idea of slicing open something as mysterious and subjective as laughter. It also begat E.B. White’s famous 1941 quote: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

Fortunately, Peter McGraw and Joel Warner don’t shy from that challenge. Their new book, The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, opens with the E.B. White quote, followed by the bold-faced declaration, “Let’s kill some frogs.” It helps that McGraw actually is a scientist – more specifically a marketing professor at the University of Colorado who runs the Boulder-based Humor Research Lab. Warner is his translator, a freelance journalist who has written for Wired and Slate, and one whose fascination with McGraw’s academic work led to their collaboration.

What makes The Humor Code work is its wide-eyed approach to the subject. McGraw and Warner are beholden to no particular scene or set of performers, and their whistle-stop education in the world of humor is both accessible and endearing. Instead of writing solely about McGraw’s experiments, they literally travel the world (91,000 miles across five continents) to explore the intersection of humor with politics, psychology, economics and, yes, hard science. It’s part buddy-comedy road trip and part deftly-woven nonfiction, and it ultimately succeeds not on its format but its ideas and inviting tone.

As a long-form magazine writer, Warner knows how to set scenes and let them play out. The book opens with McGraw attempting standup at the infamous Denver dive bar The Squire Lounge, where national comics like Ben Kronberg and Adam Cayton-Holland came up over the last decade. In a single chapter, Warner sets the stage for McGraw’s work and gives it context in the larger history of humor research, which stretches back to Aristotle and Plato. It’s an impressive juggling act and one that seems all the more effortless for its brevity and entertainment value (hint: the professor’s standup experiment does not go well).

In short, McGraw proposes that comedy can be explained with his Benign Violation Theory, in which “humor only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling or threatening (i.e., a violation), but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable, or safe (i.e., benign).” It’s a generalization, sure, but it’s applicable to a surprisingly large variety of types of humor, including slapstick, cartoons, standup, and internet memes. As with physicists and astronomers, it smacks of an attempt to craft a “theory of everything” that relies on inscrutable and often incomplete information. The assumption, which many comics take issue with, is that there are quantifiable rules to creating and appreciating humor. But like the scientists who brought us string theory and dark matter, you also find yourself rooting for the truth to be uncovered.

One of the pitfalls of writing about humor is that the language itself often isn’t funny, but here Warner proves himself up to the task. He never tries to compete with his interview subjects – which range from Japanese game show contestants and Tanzanian students to Danish cartoonists, Israeli soldiers, and Louis CK – but he still recognizes opportunities for humor when they present themselves. He also, less frequently, slides in a clever line that leaves you pausing to chew it over. “Humorists will slave endlessly to find just the right combination of words or images that will get people to laugh, a body spasm that seems to occur subconsciously,” McGraw writes in a passage about The New Yorker cartoon-captioning contest. “It’s as if the point of the Sistine Chapel ceiling were to get the Pope to sneeze.”

After spending time in Denver, L.A., and New York and exploring various facets of the American comedy industry, the co-authors head to places like Scandinavia, Palestine, and the Amazon to broaden their (and their readers’) definition of humor and examine its impact on everyday life. Once the travelogue picks up McGraw and Warner become more prominent characters in the book, although they’re neither as self-consciously edgy and glib as, say, a Vice travel writer, nor as dry and overtly weighty as the tone of an average Harper’s article. In Warner and McGraw’s hands, Japan’s fascinatingly dense, concentrated comedy culture stands in stark contrast to their exploration of Danish artists living under constant protection for drawing cartoons of Mohammed. And it all falls under the category of humor research.

The Humor Code has competition in the form of books like Scott Weems’ Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why, which was published on March 4th. But as similarly good-natured as it is, Ha! reads more like a lecture than a visceral take on the subject. The real-life characters of The Humor Code breathe and stumble and guffaw in a way that only living things can do. It may not be the definitive book on the science of humor, but it’s certainly a fascinating read on a subject that deserves more attention.

The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, will be released tomorrow by Simon & Schuster.

John Wenzel is an arts reporter for The Denver Post and comedy freelancer for RollingStone.com, The Spit Take and SXSWorld.

‘The Humor Code’ and the Science of How Comedy Works