The Humor Code

Humor resists analysis almost as stubbornly as do the causes of the First World War. It’s not just that trying to explain what makes things funny so often turns gold into lead — it’s that it’s a fool’s errand in the first place. Because pleasure in general — sexual, social, gustatory, musical, visual, olfactory, etc. — resists analysis and explanation.  Because just as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said of obscenity, “I know it when I see it,” we are, in the face of the undefinability of pleasure in general, and of humor in particular, reduced to saying “We know it when we feel it.”


Peter McGraw, a professor of marketing and psychology and the head of HuRL (the Humor Research Lab) at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Joel Warner, a journalist from Denver, decided to travel the world to test their theory of what makes things funny.  Before setting out on this journey, they formulated the phrase “benign  violation” as the basic commodity of all humor.

Humor only occurs when something seems wrong unsettling or threatening (i.e., a violation), but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable, or safe (i.e., benign). When something is just a violation, such as somebody falling down the stairs, people feel bad about it.  But…when the violation turns out to be benign, such as someone falling down the stairs and ending up unhurt, people often do an about-face and react in at least one of three ways: they feel amused, they laugh, or they make a judgment — “That was funny.” 


There may be something to this principle, though it seems to me awfully roomy and intellectually imprecise — is something unsettling, like a dark and stormy night, really any kind of violation? And how does benign violation explain the following joke?

The bartender says to a faster-than-the-speed-of-light particle who has asked for a beer, I’m sorry, Sir, but we don’t serve faster-than-the-speed-of-light particles in here.” A faster-than-the-speed-of-light particle walks into a bar.


In any case, McGraw and Warner go to Japan, the Amazon, Denmark, and Tanzania, among other places, trying to test their theory, to see whether and how it applies to different cultures. The resulting chapters deposit the reader in this or that piece of geography and use it as a prompt to discuss broad questions about humor, citing this article or that book or the other experiment. In the chapter about Japan, they go to a performance of rakugo, “a traditional form of comic storytelling,” but they can’t understand a word of it.  They can’t understand any of the verbal humor they hear in Japanese clubs and other venues, which may leave you wondering why they ponied up for the cover charge in the first place.  They do try to get to the bottom of the extreme -slapstick and often proto-sadistic  caste of Japanese humor, and conclude, as have some others, that, like their adoption of baseball and bluegrass music, the Japanese sense of humor is in part a Galápagos-like evolution of early American funny movies and TV shows. 


But in the midst of their largely uncomprehending encounters with Japanese standup and other comedy forms, the authors pause to digress about universal humor questions — sensibility differences between men and women, between Democrats and Republicans, and so on. And the reader also suddenly finds himself whisked from Tokyo to London, for a conversation with a British professor of psychology named Richard Wiseman, who in 2001 with colleagues launched a website called LaughLab, where “people uploaded jokes and rated others’ submissions on a scale called the ‘Giggleometer.’” (The Humor Code, in its own writing and in all the scholarly/academic sources it cites—and there is a truly impressive amount of research here—is exactly as funny as you would expect it to be.) Wiseman and his colleagues were trying to find the world’s funniest  joke. Here’s the winner (really?): Two hunters are out in the woods. One of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing. The other takes out his phone and calls emergency services. The operator says, “Calm down. First let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is silence and then a gunshot. Back on the phone, the hunter says, “OK, now what?”


Off to the Amazon, and a visit to the annual conference of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor.  (Oof!)  The authors fly in with a bunch of (literal) clowns to Belén — for the most part a miserable slum in Peru, the infrastructural and human detritus of the rubber boom — in order to see whether clowning improves the spirits of the depressed Belenians and in general whether laughter is therapeutic. (What has happened to “benign violation,” you may wonder.  Well, it’s in here somewhere.)  The authors themselves clown.  The people do laugh. Whether this does them any permanent good, à la Norman Cousins, is open to nearly rhetorical question, but they do laugh. But this chapter, too, follows a thin thread from its Amazonian mission to wind around Patch Adams and then extends to consider the increasingly scary aspect of clowns in modern culture.  And then to 1968 and the USS Pueblo, the spy ship captured by the North Koreans whose crew gave the finger to their captors in all the propaganda photographs taken of them, explaining that the gesture was a Hawaiian good-luck sign.

And so on.  In Denmark, an investigation into the Muhammad-cartoon episode winds into a recollection of Alan Dundes, a Berkeley folklore professor “who had two passions in life: elevating jokes to a serious discipline and courting controversy.” In New York, a kind of Mecca of standup comedy,  the authors measure the effect of alcohol on joke response.  Altogether, The Humor Code is a patchwork of anecdote, analysis, shenanigans, a whiff or two of pure junket, intellectualizing, and snafus.  Some of it is very funny.  Some of it — mainly the authors’ own longing-to-be-rollicking misadventures — isn’t.  Maybe the loudest laugh comes from a story about Lars Vilks, the Danish cartoonist who got into such trouble with his Muhammad cartooning. A few days after giving a lecture about free speech, during which protestors stormed the stage and broke his glasses, “assassins tried to burn his house down,” the authors tell us. “He wasn’t home, and the attackers succeeded only in briefly lighting themselves on fire. When…[they] retreated, they left behind a driver’s license for the benefit of the police.”


“Succeeded only briefly in lighting themselves on fire” cracked me up.  The irony of “succeeded” gains comic flavor in the dead pan that so crisply fries the rest of the sentence.  And in fact this episode perfectly illustrates my own theory of humor: If McGraw and Warner can get all baggy with “benign violation,” I can do it with “existential bafflement.” Briefly, we have a brain that can and wants to understand things, but it has no idea why it or we are here at all. And never will. This is, in my opinion, the origin of all hilarity, from Chaplin to Newhart to Joan Rivers to Steve Martin. Benign? Maybe. But when a great comedian comes offstage, she says, “I killed.”

Daniel Menaker is the Editor of Grin & Tonic, and the author, most recently, of that benign violation of a book called My Mistake: A Memoir.