How to be funny: A professor analyzes the art of humor

humor code mcgraw
Peter McGraw traveled the world to find out what makes people laugh.
Credit: Peter McGraw

If you fancy yourself as a bit of a comedy genius you’d best get used to those awkward silences.

“The best predictor of whether someone is going to be funny is by how often they’ll try to make people laugh. They fail more but they’ll also succeed more,” says Prof. Peter McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder.

McGraw teamed up with journalist Joel Warner to embark on a worldwide quest to unravel the mystery behind comedy gold. The psychology professor spoke to Metro about the funniest finds published in their new book “The Humor Code: A Global Search For What Makes Things Funny.”

You did a bit of stand-up in New York before your trip. Were you a hit or a flop and did you have a drink before going up?

I had a couple of whiskies, which probably took the edge off. I was disappointed by the whole thing because I had very clearly bombed. Being an academic, I started analyzing it all. I failed to anticipate how the jokes would be received by an audience of dirtbag hipsters and wannabe comedians.

Speaking of booze, is it easier to make drunk people laugh?

The research tends to say that people who are drunk are more easily amused. One caveat: very subtle types of jokes might not be understood. It’s because alcohol impairs cognitive functioning so people might just miss out on the jokes. Drunk people just love blunt types of comedy.

Why does humor vary from culture to culture?

It’s because, in the words of the Humor Research Lab, what people see to be benign and what people see to be violations depends on their cultural values. That’s what makes it very difficult to be universally funny.

Where was the funniest place that you visited?

People don’t believe that there’s going to be much humor in the West Bank but even we were surprised by how many hilarious people we encountered. Anytime you find people who are individuals coping with hardship you’re going to find comedy. There’s a long history of comedy speaking truth in the midst of oppression.

Can humor heal?

Yes, there’s no doubt about that. If you can get people to smile even if they’re not in a good mood, it will make them feel better because of the association. The same goes for laughter. You don’t need to do something funny to get people to enjoy the benefits of laughter. You just have to ask them to start with non-Duchenne laughter (the polite laughter you use with your boss), which can turn into positive laughter (Duchenne).



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

Mutant worms stay sober, even on alcohol

U.S. researchers have developed "mutant worms" that do not get drunk by alcohol, a breakthrough that could lead to new treatment for people trying to quit drinking

Local

K-9 nose helps capture $150K in cocaine at…

A furry, four-legged security agent helped authorities stop an illegal cocaine shipment from sneaking past JFK customs.

National

Minnesota man asked to leave Southwest flight after…

A man and his two sons were asked to leave a Southwest Airlines flight after the man sent a tweet complaining about being treated rudely by a gate agent.

National

Man sues hospital after surprise penis amputation

An Alabama man who went in to a hospital last month for a circumcision awoke after surgery to find his penis had been amputated, his lawyer said on Thursday.

Movies

Review: Brett Ratner's big 'Hercules' movie is small…

The latest "Hercules," starring Dwayne Johnson as the half-god beefcake of Greek myth, strips its hero and tale of most of its fantastical elements.

Arts

Scientists recreate world's smallest Monet copy

Scientists have reproduced a famous Impressionist painting using nano-printing, to create what has been described as the world's smallest work of art. Reworked at the…

Television

Jerry Seinfeld is ambidextrous, and other Reddit AMA…

See some of the weirder highlights of Jerry Seinfeld's recent Reddit AMA.

Going Out

Grab a pedestrian and start dancing at What…

As a New Yorker, I’ve mastered the art of focusing my gaze straight ahead. Though it occasionally piques my interest, the absurdities that play out…

NFL

2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player…

2014 NFL Fantasy Football Top 100 overall player rankings

U.S. Soccer

NYCFC announce signing of Frank Lampard

The tease of a big signing Thursday by new MLS side NYCFC ended up being one rumored for weeks. England midfielder Frank Lampard agreed to…

NBA

NBA great LeBron James sends 800 cupcake apologies…

By Kim PalmerCLEVELAND (Reuters) - NBA star LeBron James, whose recent return to the Cleveland Cavaliers in his home state of Ohio sparked a frenzy…

NFL

Jerry Reese confident with Giants, skipping countdown clocks…

Last year, Giants GM Jerry Reese installed a countdown clock in the locker room to inspire Big Blue to play in their own stadium for Super Bowl XLVIII.

Tech

Forget Wi-Fi: Li-Fi could be the future

Li-Fi technology – developed by Mexican company Sisoft – is wireless internet connectivity using specialized LED light.

Tech

Weather app Climendo might be the most accurate…

The wait for a truly accurate weather forecast could finally be over thanks to a nifty new app called Climendo.

Tech

Napkin Table puts focus off the phone and…

Michael Jan, a design student at Tunghai University in Taiwan, has invented a serviette-picnic blanket hybrid called the Napkin Table.

Style

Essie's new Color Boutique

Essie launches high-tech kiosks at major airports and malls across the country.