- The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner
By Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014. 239 pp.
The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny is a buddy book. Two friends, a professor and a journalist, travel to various global locales in order to study sources of laughter. The book’s scholarly background originates from Peter McGraw’s Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at the University of Colorado Boulder, a lab where researchers in [End Page 281] behaviorist psychology perform experiments regarding what people find funny. Although the book depicts their mutual journey, Joel Warner narrates their encounters with stand-up comedians, sufferers of laughing diseases, humor therapists, and other figures related to humor. Each chapter finds the two in a geographical location of laughter: Los Angeles for stand-up comedy, Tanzania as the site of the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, and Japan to see rakugo, a traditional form of comic storytelling, or manzai, a two-man style of comedy (unfortunately for the authors, they didn’t speak Japanese).
Analyzing humor is complex because the very questions underscoring humor studies are ambiguous: does having a “sense of humor” mean possessing the verbal ability to tell a good joke or the mental alacrity to perceive situations as funny? The duo works with a number of experts to find the answers. They interview people who create humor, such as the artists behind the New Yorker cartoons or the writers behind Groupon advertisements; or people who have an eye and ear for humor, such as the agents and talent scouts for stand-up comedians; people who teach humor at the improvisation troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade. Finally, a wager frames the book: Warner bets that their study of humor will make them funnier, and, by the tale’s end, the two have “proven” their hypothesis: McGraw performs a more successful stand-up routine at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal than he did at the book’s beginning back in Denver.
McGraw’s theory of humor is laid out at the book’s outset: the “benign violation theory.” Building upon the work of Thomas Veatch, McGraw proposes that laughter occurs when the listener realizes a social norm has been violated, but simultaneously understands that the violation is benign. Thus someone falling down a flight of stairs but remaining unhurt, or a church giving away a Hummer H2 to a lucky congregant are both examples of physical or social violations, but they are innocuous enough that after our initial surprise, we laugh. It seems that most theories of humor involve such bifurcated thinking: Victor Raskin’s linguistic theory of humor (Semantic Mechanisms of Humor, 1985) claims that a joke involves two different frames of reference: one in the set-up, the other shown in the punch line. (e.g., My wife is an excellent housekeeper. When we got divorced, she got the house.) Prior to this work, Arthur Koestler in The Art of Creation (1964) indicated that a joke involves the juxtaposition of two [End Page 282] mutually independent codes. Thus, such forms of episodic or linguistic humor rely upon dichotomous thinking.
However, the investigators rarely find this theory at work in their travels—perhaps due to language barriers. Often, their discovery of humor is in the collective interactions that evolve naturally among the people they meet: the two find themselves making penis jokes complete with gestures in the dressing room of some Japanese comedians after a show, and they express incredulity upon witnessing an Israeli police officer and a Palestinian shopkeeper in a fraught section of Hebron tease each other playfully. The two men join Patch Adams and a group of clowns on one of his Gesundheit Global Outreach trips to the slums of Iquitos in the Peruvian Andes, an area riven with poverty, unemployment, and violence. Especially in this last chapter, the two realize that laughter connects people as they roam about the streets making shadow puppets for children and eliminating stagnant water through playful antics. This kind...