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).


Bloomberg: Going green will grant you longer life…

Former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg tells Metro that cities are where fighting global warming can make a difference, and increase people’s lifespan.


Ban Ki Moon: "Climate change is an issue…

My message to you is: make your voice heard and your actions count. Change is in the air. Solutions exist. The race is on. It’s time to lead.


Earth Day New York food toolkits to help…

Hundreds of classrooms across New York City already have indoor container gardens that allow students to grow food right where they learn. But Earth Day…


NYPD announces street closures for United Nations General…

The United Nations representatives are in town, and multiple city streets will be closed to traffic through Saturday, Sept. 26. The NYPD is urging those…


10 Facts you won’t learn about Frankie Grande…

Frankie Grande is the worst and/or the best. Whether or not you're a fan, you'll want to know these facts about the polarizing player from "Big Brother 16."


Antoine Fuqua can kill someone with just a…

It's amazing what you can get done with the right tools. In designing the climactic battle in "the Equalizer," in which Denzel Washington's retired special…


Guess Ben Kingsley's worst filmmaking experience

Here's a fun game: Sir Ben Kingsley has made a lot of films since "Gandhi" in 1982, but at least one of them was a…


Does Lena Dunham have any secrets left?

Get a sneak peek at her new book to determine if it’s worth the read.


3 things that went wrong in Jets loss…

The Jets have very little room for error with a far-from-explosive offense.


Eli Manning finally feeling good in West Coast…

The Giants have very little time before their next game, but they still took a moment to relish the team’s biggest offensive outburst since Week 1 of 2013.


College football top 25 poll: Oregon, Alabama close…

College football top 25 poll: Oregon, Alabama close in on FSU


Jay Cutler takes Marc Trestman's coaching to heart

While Jay Cutler turned to an autobiography on the man who would be his head coach, Trestman had personal experience with the player.


Exercising leads to more drinking — and we…

  We’re rewarding ourselves with more than dessert on days we exercise, according to a new study. On days when people exercise more, typically Thursday…


5 gadgets to protect you from sharks, concussions,…

The medical industry is inundated with devices looking after all aspects of your wellbeing, from monitoring your sleep patterns to warding off shark attacks. We…


Narcissism and the ugly side of vanity

I have a friend who constantly talks about herself and rarely asks any questions about my life. She is constantly preening, obsessed with her body,…


Lacking new ideas, Apple Watch disappoints health experts

Technology pundits were quick to predict the demise of most fitness wristbands and smartwatches when the Apple Watch was announced. But health care professionals and…