The draw to comedy is strong. It angers us, offends us, heals us and for some of us, it defines an entire life. Psychology professor Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner study comedy extensively in their new book, The Humor Code. These two men are profoundly drawn to comedy and travel the world to try to understand it at a deeply human level.
In the Humor Research Lab—or HuRL—in Boulder, Colorado, McGraw developed a concept about comedy he calls the Benign-Violation Theory. “Humor only occurs,” according to his and Warner’s explanation in The Humor Code, “when something seems wrong, unsettling or threatening (i.e., a violation), but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable, or safe (i.e., benign).” They use various jokes to exemplify their theory—such as, “Why did the monkey fall out of the tree? Because it was dead.” A monkey falling out of a tree seems to be benign but it turns into a joke when it is revealed that the monkey is dead, a very clear violation.
In the book, McGraw and Warner travel the world testing this theory and asking questions about what makes something funny. This all began with McGraw wanting to try comedy for the sake of science, “so I took him to the Squire,” says Warner. The open mic at the Squire in Denver is notorious for being the most difficult in the country. Or as Warren explains in The Humor Code, “As a local comic put it to me, ‘If you fail at the Squire, not only will you fail hard, but then you will be cruelly mocked.’” As expected, McGraw failed horribly. So badly, in fact, that not only did he break the mic, but after his set the host of the show said, “That’s a sweater vest he’s wearing, not a bulletproof vest. So go ahead and shoot him.” This failure bothered McGraw. He had applied his theory to create jokes and yet he wasn’t able to secure laughs—and so began his quest with Warner to test his theory further and perfect his execution of it.
The Humor Code
“The conversations are broader out in the real world,” says McGraw. “Academics are interested in minutiae. But comics are interested in the big questions like: What does it mean for something to be too soon? I got a lot of inspiration from those kinds of conversations.” The structure of the book reflects the kind of conversations McGraw and Warner were having on their travels. “Each chapter deals with a specific question,” says Warner. “Who is funny? How do you make funny? Can you find humor where you least expect it?” Through this process his questions about comedy deepened. Although McGraw still focused on his B/V theory, in this book it becomes much more of a way to look at how to frame discussions about comedy than a prescriptive or formulaic way to construct humor.
Joel Warner and Dr. Peter McGraw in Osaka, Japan
Like any good theory it is still under debate and testable, but B/V does seem to hold up in various contexts while providing a nice framework to ask those deeper, broader questions. In The Humor Code, the theory’s application around the world isn’t what’s most interesting or valuable. What makes this book fascinating are the moments we see McGraw on stage working through his material and creating comedy—whether he’s failing at an open mic in Denver or getting laughs from a major comedy crowd at the Just for Laughs fest in Montreal, which he just so happened to work his way into even though he had only done comedy once before.
Comics ask themselves, “Who the hell do I think I am, trying to make people laugh?” They often debate vigorously about what is and isn’t funny. They defend their stances or shift their thinking about comedy. The feelings and philosophies comics have about comedy are based on acutely visceral reactions to being on stage. McGraw took to the stage, tried comedy and used himself as a case study. That alone was a bold and noble move toward finding and defining what makes humans laugh.
Genevieve Mueller is a writer and comedian living in Albuquerque. She performs all over the country and runs two monthly shows in Albuquerque: Comedians Power Hour and The Comedy Storytelling Show at La Tortuga Gallery. More information can be found at genevievemuellercomedy.com or on Twitter: @fromthefloorup.
John Bear's big left toe. Cleans floors, fights crime.
Number 53 of 101 things I need around the house: bandages.
I’ve been a bachelor now for longer than I’ll admit to anyone. With no woman around to keep me from completely self-destructing, what was once a pad is now a hovel. The freezer is packed full of frozen meals that seemed like a good idea at the time but now collect frost and cold resistant parasites. Hot dogs made of three or more kinds of animal are a prime example. I’m not going to eat them, but feel too guilty to throw them away, so many lowly beasts lost their lives.
The most recent tragedy to befall single me is the savagery visited upon my left big toe. I was trying to be a “grown up” and put sheets on my bed rather than sleeping on a pile of laundry when something sharp entered my toe. It felt like a paperclip being pushed into a rubber eraser.
The blood began to flow like oil from a deep sea rig. I felt around and extracted a pinky finger sized piece of a compact fluorescent light bulb.
Ah, the compact fluorescent lightbulb. I bought about fifty of the things during the last year in an attempt at being more green. They remind me of soft-serve ice cream and are supposed to last ten years.
Problem: they keep exploding and showering my apartment with glass. Perhaps it’s the scary 1930s electrical wiring. A plumber built the building. Freaky.
I am a terrible house cleaner and always seem to miss a piece. Luckily, my feet are like natures Swiffer Sweeper, only with the added absorbency of soft flesh. An x-ray of my feet must surely resemble a Rhine Stone Cowboy.
As I glanced at the stigmata on my big toe, the piggy that went to market, I couldn’t help but wonder how much mercury once contained in the light bulbs now courses through my veins. I knew there was a reason I like hats so much.
I frantically searched the house for something that could serve as a bandage. After locating a bottle of rubbing alcohol, I swabbed off the wound. My bedroom and bathroom floors began to resemble a crime scene. The alcohol stung and the pomegranate shampoo with which I washed the wound was no picnic either. I think I’ll buy Mountain Strawberry next time.
Tape seemed like it would serve as a suitable bandage until the next day, when I could score some Johnson and Johnson, or a comparable house brand. All there I had, unfortunately, was duct tape. Something about duct tape seemed fatal. I prefer scotch tape but none could be found.
In the end, I settled for a clean wife-beater shirt. The shoulders made fairly good attachments; my foot looks like Liam Neeson’s face in “Darkman.” I cleaned the abattoirs-like floor in the bathroom and called it a night. Sometimes I feel so handy. I can’t believe I’m still single.
"Pray that there's intelligent life somewhere out in space, 'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth!"--Eric Idle, The Meaning of Life.
All praise is due unto the Grand Unified Theory and the intolerant hairless apes that hath spawned it.
It’s a shame that a bunch of white wing (deliberate Freudian slip) Christians don’t want an Islamic community center in an old Burlington Coat Factory in Manhattan, even though by protesting against one, they contradict the very freedoms they hold dear. I guess they don’t realize what an ugly and irrational force hate can be.
At the same time, I can’ t help but think I’m sick of people arguing about who has the better version of the invisible-man-in-the-sky who-invented-all-of-creation story. Whoever S/he is, S/he isn’t amused. I’m not into any of this, and it’s taking up too much airtime, especially since most of these people seem to hate the same things: immigrants, homosexuals, women and each other. Seriously, unemployment is high, we are still involved in one and a half wars, and the earth appears to officially be broken. My cable news has been invaded by the Wholly Irrelevant.
Besides, believing in an omniscient being that obsesses over this tiny rock, which amounts to the western Oklahoma of the universe, seems silly when the size of it can be measured and it’s age calculated, and it’s very very big, thirteen billion light years wide. Hubris.
Solution: I’ve been watching space shows on the Science Channel, and the History Channel, when it’s not playing shows about the DaVinci Code. Some of this space stuff is so hard to fathom, it might as well be a religion. Because I am sick and tired of religion and the animosity it creates, I propose . . . a new religion for all of humanity based on what I have learned watching basic cable.
My glorious new religion shall be called “Big Bangism,” and it’s adherents, Big Bangers, after the widely accepted theory that the universe sprang into existence from a tiny point in the black void of nothingness--or something like that; I can’t remember; I wasn’t really paying attention. Don’t drag me down with your damn details. The devil is in those. This is faith, dammit.
To keep things interesting, humans can argue about the exact title of the new religion. Half of the people can refer to this exciting new cosmology as “Giant Explosionism,” though Giant Explosioners are generally smelly heathen with no class. But I appreciate their right to worship as they please. It’s not me who will have to answer to the Supermassive Black Hole when it engulfs us all in it’s glorious and all powerful event horizon. Amen.
That’s the beauty part of watching these shows: half of the episodes focus on space objects that may one day destroy us all, so the apocalyptic angle is covered. In addition to rogue black holes, there are gamma ray bursts from the poles of stars going supernova, giant rocks, and, I suppose, malevolent species of aliens.
Come, brothers and sisters. Abandon your old-fangled ways and embrace some new-fangled ones. It’s really hard to understand, but that’s the beauty of religion: Why have understanding when you can have faith. I am reminded of a time when I was mocking a piece of duct tape purported to show an image of Jesus. I was told, with disdain for my obvious lack of it, “It’s faith, John.” This particular image of Jesus, by the way, is available if you’re interested, on Ebay. May he who hath the highest bid emerge triumphant. Praise the Black Hole and pass the Strong Electromagnetism. Amen.
I was given the opportunity to poison young minds this morning.
The first meeting of the newspaper class at Albuquerque High School met today and I came in to show them how it’s done. I brought along a colleague, Ali Patterson, a copy editor at the Albuquerque Journal, because it is important to show the neophytes that not all newspaper people are disheveled miscreants who mumble a lot and look like they haven’t slept in days. Ali calls the two extremes of journalistic types “type A” and “type B.” There doesn’t seem to be anyone in the middle between the organized A’s and everyone else.
I have spoken with a high school journalism class once before. It had six editors-in-chief. That doesn’t work. A newspaper has to have a mafia-style paramilitary command structure with a supreme commander at the top. Otherwise, nothing will get done. A newspaper is a machine and must run efficiently, even if some of us end up spinning in the gears.
I told the class to select a leader and warned the leader not to be a douche. It is important to get the job done but not to alienate the troops. I’ve had pompous, arrogant editors, and everyone in their employ will eventually undermine them. It’s apparently hard to have power and not abuse it.
A girl in the class rose at the end and identified herself as editor-in-chief. I have no idea if that had already been decided upon or if she was taking the mafia analogy too literally. She certainly seemed to have what it takes.
Ali and I mulled over a few more topics: design, lede writing, learning the devil Associated Press Style, the importance of getting facts right, and the joy of pissing off the powers-that-be.
Ali spoke about checking names, places and all the small things that can screw up an otherwise perfectly good newspaper. I told the kids about the demon readers who only live to find mistakes in newsprint. They’re out there, and they suck.
One kid asked, “What if I get in trouble for a story I write?” I told him to get his facts straight, be fair and tell the truth. They can, and will, get mad, but they can’t do anything about it.
I was a student journalist in college and it changed my life. When I was a kid I was a mark for bullies and mean people. Now they are my collective bitch. Journalism has been a godsend for me, has taught me how to use my words.
The paper was, and is, a place for word nerds to obtain glory they are otherwise denied. Support your local school paper.
We’re going back in a month or two to check out a few issues and offer some critique. I can’t wait.