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The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny
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The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny [Format Kindle]

Peter McGraw , Joel Warner

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The Humor Code





We walk into the Squire Lounge just as the Denver watering hole is gearing up for its weekly open-mike comedy night. Looking around, Pete grins. “This is fantastic!” he yells over the ruckus, sounding like a field biologist who’s just discovered a strange new animal species. The mirrored walls display awards for “Best Dive Bar in Denver,” the stench of industrial cleaner hangs in the air, and the sound of clanging beer bottles blends into the police sirens wailing through the night outside. The clientele sports tattoos and ironic mustaches, lumberjack shirts, and plastic-rimmed glasses.

Pete is wearing a sweater vest.

The professor sticks out here like a six-foot-five, 40-year-old sore thumb. He’s also calm for someone who’s about to do stand-up for the first time. Or for someone who’s been warned that this open mike is the toughest one around. As a local comic put it to me, “If you fail at the Squire, you will not only fail hard, but then you will be cruelly, cruelly mocked.”

Rolling up the sleeves of his button-down shirt, Pete orders us a couple whiskeys on the rocks. “This is a welcoming crowd,” he cracks sarcastically.

I’m soon ordering another round. I don’t know why I’m the more nervous of the two of us. I have little at stake in Pete’s stand-up routine. We’ve only known each other for a few weeks, but I’d like him to succeed. I fear that’s not likely to happen.

Pete’s already working the room. He zeroes in on a woman by the pool table. She turns out to be another open-mike first-timer. “Did you think about your outfit tonight?” he asks. “I put this on so I look like a professor.”

He glances around the room. The neon Budweiser signs on the walls cast a bluish, sickly hue on the grizzled faces lined up at the bar.

Turning back to the woman, Pete offers an unsolicited piece of advice: “No joking about Marxism or the military-industrial complex.”

I’d stumbled upon Pete after having written an article about gangland shootings and fire bombings for Westword, the alternative weekly newspaper in Denver. I was eager for a palate cleanser. I hoped that it wouldn’t involve cultivating anonymous sources or filing federal open-records requests. Yes, such efforts have brought down presidents, but I’m no 31-year-old Woodward or Bernstein. I’d rather find another story like the profile I wrote of a McDonald’s franchise owner who used his arsenal of fast-food inventions to break the world record for drive-thru Quarter Pounders served in an hour. Or the coffee connoisseur I’d followed to Ethiopia in search of the shadowy origins of the world’s most expensive coffee bean. (The expedition broke down several dozen miles short of its goal thanks to caffeine-fueled bickering, impassable muddy roads, and reports of man-eating lions.)

When I heard about a Boulder professor who was dissecting comedy’s DNA, I’d found my story.

It’s true, Pete told me when I first got him on the phone. He’d started something he called the Humor Research Lab—also known as HuRL. His research assistants (the Humor Research Team, aka HuRT) were just about to run a new round of experiments. Maybe I’d like to come by and watch.

A week later, sitting in a large, white conference room at the University of Colorado’s Leeds School of Business, I witnessed Pete’s peculiar approach to humor research. Four student volunteers filed into the room, signed off on the appropriate consent forms, and then sat and watched as a somber-faced research assistant dimmed the lights and played a clip from the hit comedy Hot Tub Time Machine. After ten minutes of scatological gags and off-color sex jokes, the students filled out a questionnaire about the film. Did they find the scene in which the BMW keys were removed from a dog’s butt funny? What about the line “A taxidermist is stuffing my mom”? Or the part where a character breaks his catheter and sprays urine on everybody?

The experiment, Pete explained to me, was the latest chapter in HuRL’s attempts to understand what makes things funny. Other tests included forcing subjects to watch on repeat a YouTube video of a guy driving a motorcycle into a fence, to determine when, exactly, it ceases to be amusing. Another exposed participants to a real-life ad of an anthropomorphized lime peeing into a glass of soda, then had them drink lime cola to see if they thought it tasted like pee.

For someone like Pete, there was nothing unusual about this research. Over the course of his relatively short career, he’s haggled with casket manufacturers at a funeral directors’ convention, talked shop with soldiers of fortune at a gun show, and sung hymns at a Fundamentalist Baptist church in West Texas, all for the sake of science.

His experiments aren’t limited to his day job. The professor has a tendency to live his research, no matter the disastrous results. While he was working toward his PhD in quantitative psychology at Ohio State University, a mentor invited him to Thanksgiving dinner. Pete offered to pay for his meal just to see the reaction to the obvious faux pas.

Pete puts himself and others in uncomfortable situations to make sense of human behavior—or figure out why so much of it doesn’t make sense. There have to be logical rules behind humanity’s illogical decisions, he figures. He just has to find them. “It’s a way to keep control in an uncertain world,” Pete told me the first time we met. Growing up in a working-class town in southern New Jersey, he sometimes faced the harsh realities of that uncertain world. Yes, there was always food on the table for him and his younger sister, Shannon, but his single mother had to work two or three jobs and sometimes rely on food stamps to do it. Yes, his mom took care of them, but her headstrong and forceful manner didn’t always make her household a fun place to be. And, yes, he sported high-tops and Ocean Pacific T-shirts like the other boys in high school, but by age fourteen, he was working as a stock boy at the local Woolworth’s to pay for it all himself. Maybe that’s why ever since, he’s always been determined to keep everything tidy and under control.

I could identify with Pete’s compulsive tendencies, maybe more than I liked to admit. In an industry populated by ink-stained shlubs and paper-cluttered offices, I come off as a tad neurotic. To streamline my reporting process, I’ve assembled a small, über-geeky arsenal of digital cameras, foldaway keyboards, and electronic audio-recording pens. In the Denver home I share with my wife, Emily McNeil, and young son, Gabriel, every bookshelf is arranged alphabetically by author and segregated into fiction and nonfiction. (I’d say this drives Emily up the walls, but she’s my perfect match: as orderly and organized as they come.) In my world, unhappiness is a sink full of dirty dishes.

Pete offered me an all-access tour of his scholarly world. He explained to me that a chunk of his research could be classified as behavioral economics, the growing field of psychologists and economists who are hard at work proving that people don’t make rational financial decisions, as classical economists have long suggested. Instead, they’ve discovered, we do all sorts of odd stuff with our money. While completing his post-doctoral training at Princeton, Pete shared an office with Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel Prize–winning psychology professor who helped establish the field. Kahneman’s office would never again be so organized.

But Pete’s interests extend well beyond behavioral economics. He’s not just interested in why people act strangely with their money. He wants to know why they act strangely all the time. A few years ago, he became fascinated by what could be the most peculiar human phenomenon of all.

While giving a talk at Tulane University about how people are disgusted when churches and pharmaceutical companies use marketing in morally dubious ways, Pete mentioned a story about a church that was giving away a Hummer H2 to a lucky member of its congregation. The crowd cracked up. And then one of the audience members raised her hand with a question. “You say that moral violations cause disgust, yet we are all laughing. Why is that?”

Pete was stumped. “I’d never thought about it,” he told me.

He decided to figure it out.

It doesn’t take long for the Squire to fill up with patrons ready to cheer—or jeer—the comics tonight. Folks are soon packed in so tightly that the communal body heat overwhelms the slowly rotating fans overhead.

“Welcome to the Squire,” cracks the night’s MC, grinning into the microphone from the bar’s cramped corner stage. “It’s the only place with an indoor outhouse.” He follows the bit up with a joke about accidentally smoking crack. The room roars, and he turns his attention to three innocent-looking audience members who’ve unwisely chosen to sit at the table closest to the stage. Soon he’s detailing the horrendous sexual maneuvers the wide-eyed threesome must perform on one another. The three, it turns out, are friends of Pete’s who thought it would be nice to cheer him on.

As the MC introduces the first of the night’s amateurs, Pete slips to the back of the room to look over his note cards. “I’m worried my routine may be ...

Revue de presse

The Humor Code is basically an adventure story... [with] more to say about humor than a skeptic might think possible; The Humor Code is a lot [of] fun." (New York Times)

“Their book pulls off the neat literary trick of portraying a picaresque scientific enterprise that takes them around the world from Tanzania to Japan to Scandinavia.” (The Wall Street Journal)

"[T]he authors, in dissecting the nature of humor, shed fascinating light on what makes us laugh and why." (New York Post)

"Peter McGraw, an irrepressible psychology prof, and Joel Warner, his straight-man scribe, deliver entertaining answers to nagging questions like: Do unhappy people make better comedians? Are some things too horrible to laugh at? And how do you win The New Yorker cartoon contest? … McGraw lays out a convincing theory about how humor works, and why it’s an essential survival mechanism. (Mother Jones)

“[I]n The Humor Code, psychologist Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner stalk the essence of comedy from New York to Tokyo, putting McGraw’s “benign violation” theory to the test. The best jokes, they find, tread on our sense of propriety and upset our expectations, but in a harmless way— no one is actually hurt, and the audience isn’t too offended… [McGraw and Warner] illuminate the inner workings of humor with a verve that befits the subject. You’ll detect the mechanisms they describe in your favorite TV shows, movies, and stand-up routines almost as soon as you’ve finished reading.” (Psychology Today)

"What makes The Humor Code work is its wide-eyed approach to the subject.... 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." (Splitsider)

“If you've ever wondered why we laugh at what we do,you have to read this book about the DNA of humor. The odd-couple authors take us on a journey from the halls of science to the backstage of Los Angeles comedy clubs, and they show us why people can laugh amidst tensions in Palestine or a clown brigade in the Amazon. It's part Indiana Jones, part Tina Fey, and part Crime Scene Investigation, and it will make you smarter and happier.” (Chip Heath, author of Decisive, Switch, and Made to Stick)

“This book tickled my hippocampus. Joel Warner and Peter McGraw gave me paradigm-altering insights into humor, but also creativity, business, happiness, and, of course, flatulence.” (A.J. Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy and The Year of Living Biblically)

“Engaging, wise, and of course funny, The Humor Code is a wonderful quest to discover who and what makes us laugh. Pete McGraw and Joel Warner are the best of company, and you'll be glad you took this trip with them.” (Susan Cain, author of Quiet)

The Humor Code is so good that I wish I wrote it. In fact, I’ve already started telling people I did. Luckily, Pete McGraw and Joel Warner are givers, so they won’t mind. They’ve given us a remarkable look at what makes us laugh, with the perfect blend of science, stories, satire, and sweater vests. This book has bestseller written all over it.” (Adam Grant, Wharton professor and bestselling author of Give and Take)

"Peter and Joel's globe-spanning search for what makes things funny is a wonderful page-turner that entertains as much as it informs." (Dan Ariely, author of The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty and Predictably Irrational)

"The Humor Code is a fun narrative of how a serious scientific theory is born, tested, and lived." (Ben Huh, CEO of The Cheezburger Network)

"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." (Adam Alter, New York Times bestselling author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave; Assistant Professor of Marketing and Psychology)

"McGraw and Warner have done something quite remarkable and commendable. They’ve taken an intriguing question regarding the nature of humor and artfully mined answers from both the outcomes of scientific research and their own “world-wide comedy tour” experiences. I’ve never seen anything like it." (Robert Cialdini, bestselling author of Influence)

“I’ve always been fascinated by how humor works. I’m not willing to say that The Humor Code solves the puzzle once and for all, but it comes pretty close – and along the way it’s a hell of a ride.” (Jimmy Carr, Stand-up comedian, television host, actor, and co-author of Only Joking: What's So Funny About Making People Laugh?)

“Spanning five-continents, McGraw and Warner’s quest for a unified field theory of funny may be quixotic but, like Don Q and Sancho, their misadventures are irresistible and their enthusiasm is as infectious as the laughter they chronicle. Together they manage to find the science in comedy and the comedy in science, and share it all with the reader in this playful Baedeker of humor.” (Barnet Kellman; Emmy-Award winning director of Murphy Brown and Mad About You, professor of Cinema Arts at USC, co-director of Comedy@SCA)

""The Humor Code" was informative, entertaining, well-written and moving, and one you won't want to miss." (

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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) 3.9 étoiles sur 5  46 commentaires
23 internautes sur 26 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Worldwide comedy romp 1 avril 2014
Par David Wineberg - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle
As The Humor Code notes several times, humor can't stand to be examined. It falls apart and fails, like magic does when you explain a trick. That said, the authors fly off around the world, looking at comedy and humor and what makes them tick in different societies. From their Denver base, they get to visit with New York admen, Palestinian sketch satirists, Japanese standup students, and eventually take all they have learned and demonstrate it at the Just for Laughs festival.

Suffice it to say comedy gets to keep its secrets. There is no universal formula. Different jokes appeal to different folks. Different societies take offense at different things. American standup filth doesn't play as well in say, Yemen.

Many societies have moron jokes, poking insults at some minority or other country: Irish jokes in England, Okie jokes in the USA, Newfie jokes in Canada, Polish jokes in North America (in the sixties). That's about as universal as The Humor Code gets.

There is so much they miss, it is criminal. They visited Tanzania to learn about laughing disease, but never mention the infectiousness of laughter. That the top selling record in the USA was once just laughter. People listened and couldn't help laughing. They miss the printed word entirely: the setups of Robert Benchley, the knife twisting of Celia Rivenbark, the Dementia Praecox of SJ Perelman. And most strangely, they don't examine delivery and timing - how one person can make reading the telephone book funny and two people telling the same joke get entirely different reactions. How Peter Cook could keep people howling all night without ever telling a joke, and no one could remember a thing from the experience except their sides hurt all the next day and they had the time of their lives. (They do mention Henny Youngman's signature line in passing.) But then, none of that would fit in their theory anyway.

What I found most interesting was their time with the cartoon editor of the New Yorker. They put together a list of the approaches that make for a winning caption: finalists' entries didn't waste words on obvious visual elements, did not use excessive punctuation like question marks and exclamation points, and at 8.7 words, were a word shorter than the rest. Also, they did double duty. Being the funniest isn't enough; they have to make a point. Oh.

We are left with a travelogue, filled with bad drivers, missed connections, too much alcohol and not much new data. The stories are backfilled with references to academics and studies that follow references out onto tangents.

If you know going in they weren't going to discover the holy grail, it makes the Humor Code much more readable and enjoyable. It's just a romp in comedy around the world.

David Wineberg
15 internautes sur 17 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Very little here of substance 28 avril 2014
Par Steven Rose - Publié sur
Format:Format Kindle
This book was a disappointment. The premise was quite intriguing in that that these two gentlemen would travel to different cultures in search of what made people laugh, and if there was a common element that held true through these cultures. The two, a professor of marketing and psychology and a journalist, propose that that common element is one of "benign violation." This is where there is something presented that is sensed to be unsettling, wrong or threatening, but then is found to be all right, or safe. It's a good theory, and is often easy to see in humor across cultures, but it does appear to have its flaws and contradictions. Still, it would be fascinating to delve into different cultures and see what makes people laugh.
Unfortunately, this book does not do this. The book is written more as a travelogue at best, or as a personal journal for the author. The relatively short book is full of travel details, personal asides, and stories not dealing with main subject. The journalist author seems to write this more as a human interest story where personal details of the people they meet, such as the nonessential elements of their background, or even what they are wearing, are described at length. There is also a lot of wordage devoted to the details of the trip. The entire first page on Japan is about their flight to Japan, without any reference to humor or comedy. There is a chapter devoted to the laughing disease outbreak many years ago in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). We read exhaustive details of their search for what caused the outbreak. We hear about their mode of transport, their guide and the rugged country into the middle of nowhere to find one of the last living people afflicted by that outbreak only to find out she's not talking. Even if she would have talked to them, I doubt she would have contributed anything as to what makes people laugh.
So I considered this book a waste of time as far as finding out about what people find funny and why, or if there is really anything that is universal across different cultures. If you want that, then there are volumes of other works are far more intriguing and elucidating.
11 internautes sur 12 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Fun, Evidence-based, and Well-Written 11 avril 2014
Par Robert I. Sutton - Publié sur
Format:Relié|Achat vérifié
My son stole my first copy of this book and won't give it back, so I bought a second. The blend of rigorous theory and research, a dash of academic controversy and a delightful travel tale make this a delight to read. As an academic, I confess that I don't take anyone seriously who claims to have found or invented the one behavioral science theory that explains everything -- some of the Amazon reviewers are taking this whole humor thing too seriously. Most theories hold on some conditions and not others, and this is probably true of "Benign Violation Theory;" McGraw confesses as much. I don't see that as a weakness, rather it strikes me as intellectual honesty (a rare thing in mass market books). Indeed, as one of my favorite mentors taught me, all theories about social behavior are wrong because they oversimplify reality. So the more important questions include: Can you show it holds under at least some conditions? Is it well argued? Is it interesting? The Humor Code passes with flying colors on all counts.

Scholars will keep arguing about the conditions under which this and other perspectives hold, meanwhile, I suggest you enjoy this book and focus on the authors' journey, stories, and insights -- I enjoyed the blend immensely.
10 internautes sur 12 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Education and Great Storytelling 1 avril 2014
Par Kevin - Publié sur
I love learning about research related to humor. But it can be horribly dull. McGraw and Warner manage to tell a story of international travel that makes The Humor Code read more like a good fiction novel. As Warner describes the mayhem the duo faces, he pulses out research findings... a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.

I tore through it in a weekend, which is a first for me as far as non-fiction goes. I learned a lot about comedy, but also laughed outloud no fewer than 2 dozen times.

Get a copy and plan to get sucked in. :)
3 internautes sur 3 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
2.0 étoiles sur 5 Rather boring account of a world-wide search for humor 4 mai 2014
Par John Martin - Publié sur
The Humor Code evolved from an idea to search for a single theory to explain humor by Peter McGraw, a University of Colorado professor who enlisted Joel Warner, a journalist, to accompany him on a global search and actually write the book. Professor McGraw (call me Pete) indicates that people have been trying to understand humor since Plato and Aristotle. The latest theory that has gained acceptance is called “incongruity,” namely that humor arises when there is a difference between what people expect to happen and what really happens. Professor Pete has his own theory which he called the “P + V Theory.” Humor occurs when you see a situation is a violation of a subjective moral principle (V), while at the same time realizing that the situation is normal (N). To test his theory the professor does a stand up routine at a local comedy club and bombs. He and Warner then set off on a global quest to talk to professionals and examine humor in an international perspective. Their journey takes them to such places as Tanzania to see if they can discover the cause of a laughter epidemic that took place some years ago (the best they can come up with is that it is caused by nervousness in a new situation), to Japan to examine cultural differences and to Scandinavia, Palestine and even the Amazon. In the end Professor Pete does another stand up routine in a Montreal club and does better. At the same time he really does not prove his theory. Humor, it seems, is not capable of being defined by a single idea—and timing is everything.

I found the book to be rather boring after expecting a lively account based on the topic. A big part of the problem, I think, is that it is written in the first person by the journalistic, Joel Warner. It could well have been better if the proponent of the theory and the expert on humor had written his own book. At the same time some people will find the places and discovery of humor that the pair find around the world to be interesting.
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