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No Joke: US Professor Unlocks Humor Code

  • Shelley Schlender

Analyzing humor, observed American author E.B. White, is like dissecting a frog. "Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.” But that has not deterred Peter McGraw.

McGraw teaches students at the University of Colorado Business School how to do research on the topic of humor. He's taken his research out of the classroom, seeking ways to crack the humor code.

“Although you need science, you need a laboratory and experiments to understand what makes things funny," he explained. "If you want a complete understanding of this mysterious, complex thing, you need to go out into the real world. You need to test your theories.”

McGraw especially wanted to test a scientific theory he developed, which he calls “benign violation.” “These are situations that are in some way threatening, unsettling or amiss, but at the same time are safe, acceptable or okay.”

Like pratfalls, puns and risque jokes. McGraw's is only one of dozens of different theories about the basis of humor. It has been studied by biologists, sociologists and some of the world's greatest philosophers; from Socrates and Kant to Schopenhauer.

Make 'em laugh

It's a tough crowd, to borrow a phrase, but McGraw is committed to add to the body of knowledge. His research has taken him around the world. He said the most challenging place for finding benign violation was a country where, at first, he couldn’t make anybody laugh -- Japan.

“On the street, in the subways, at their places of work, there was very little laughter, but we found out that that’s because of the cultural norms. It’s not okay to express emotion in those places.” It turns out, he learned, that tickling the Japanese funny bone depends on where you are. “At the karaoke bars and out in social gatherings, the Japanese really were quite funny,” said McGraw.

So were the 100 clowns he joined in a poor neighborhood of Iquitos, Peru. McGraw was part of a team trained by U.S. physician and long-time clown, Patch Adams. They entertained children everywhere, using goofy music, silly clothes and round, red noses.

“Since these adults are fooling around, it encourages the kids to. It gives them license to have a little more fun than they would normally,” he said.

Humor for a cause

But not all humor deserves praise. McGraw found a type of humor he did not like in every country he visited: the stupid joke. “The stupidity joke picks out a group, typically low status, and makes fun of them for not being smart. Frankly, I don’t think it’s a very good form of comedy.”

He has a different feeling about satire, which can be a politically powerful form of comedy, and has been used to great effect all over the world. Serbian activist Srdja Popovic, who led a student movement that helped force Slobodan Milošević from power in 2000, told McGraw it was a weapon against all leaders who take themselves too seriously. “If they get mocked, they do something stupid. If they do something stupid, they give you even more possibility to mock them."

McGraw observed, “I wouldn’t say that humor can overthrow a dictator, but I think it can help.”

Comedy can bring people together. McGraw recalls a visit to the Middle East. He sat on the steps of a store in Hebron and watched an Israeli police officer sauntering toward the Palestinian shopkeeper. McGraw braced for trouble. But the two men began trading jokes.

“Because they see each other every day, they managed to create a relationship, and a relationship built around fun and laughter and joking. One that transcended this conflict.”

Humor code

These global encounters lead McGraw to conclude that humor can be a powerful force. The quest for what's funny, he says, treads a delicate line between making people laugh, making them yawn and making them cry.

Peter McGraw has coauthored a book about his global adventures, called The Humor Code. Some universities are starting to use it as a college text. McGraw hopes a better understanding of humor will help people be more creative, successful... and happy.