It’s a question that philosophers have asked since Aristotle.
What makes something funny?
Going beyond that — why do we laugh in the first place? Because if you step back and look at it, laughing is pretty dang weird.
Well, my guest today on the podcast went on a worldwide tour to uncover the science of humor. His name is Peter McGraw. He’s a behavioral scientist at the University of Colorado in Boulder and he’s the co-author of the book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. Today on the podcast Peter and I discuss the findings of his far-ranging research as well as the work done in his humor lab at the University of Colorado. If you’re looking to add a bit more humor into your life, you won’t want to miss this.
- The super serious academic research that goes on about humor
- Why humans laugh (and why some animals do too)
- Peter’s Benign Violation Theory of Humor
- What are the boundaries of propriety when it comes to jokes
- Are people born funny? Can you work on becoming funnier?
- Are men funnier than women?
- Why women find men with a sense of humor attractive
- Does humor cut across cultures?
- What you can start doing today to become funnier
- And much more!
The Humor Code is a fascinating and entertaining look into the biology and psychology of humor. What’s more, you’ll walk away with some actionable things you can do to inject some more humor into your life after you’ve read it.
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Listen to the episode on a separate page.
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here and welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Here’s a question that’s plagued philosophers since Aristotle. He actually grappled with this question. What makes something funny? For that matter, why do we laugh in the first place because if you take a step back, laughing is kind of weird. You’re smiling, you’re making these weird noises, you’re breathing heavy, what’s going on there? My guest today went on a worldwide tour to uncover the answers to these questions. His name is Peter McGraw, he is a behavioral scientist at the University of Colorado, and he co-wrote a book called “The Humor Code,” and in it, he highlights all this research that’s being done about humor and as well as his own research that he’s done on humor, figuring out what makes things funny.
He actually created a humor lab at the University of Colorado to figure out scientifically what makes things funny, and he highlights this all in his book. It’s a really fun book, and also you get some really good insights about humor and what you can do to become funnier. Today in the podcast, we’re going to discuss some of the research that Peter has uncovered, and we’ll all start with some practical tips that you can implement today to be a funnier man. Without further ado, Peter McGraw, The Humor Code.
Peter McGraw, welcome to the show.
Peter McGraw: Thanks for having me.
Brett McKay: All right, so you are a psychologist, behavioral scientist who has spent some time studying humor. How did you get involved? What made you decide “I’m going to study, figure out what makes something funny.” How did that happen?
Peter McGraw: I wish I could tell you that I have this lifetime passion about comedy, although I knew that I couldn’t become like a stand-up comic, I thought I would understand it from a scientific standpoint, but it’s really not that interesting a story. It actually just really comes down to being asked a question in a talk in which I had no answer for, so I was giving a talk at Tulane University, this is now 8 years ago, and presented a funny story about someone engaging in immoral behavior, and the audience laughed, and someone raised their hand and said “Why are we laughing at that? You just said this is immoral, and the people react with anger and outrage at immoral things, and yet we’re experiencing positive emotion. Why is that the case?”
At that point, I had been studying emotions for more than 10 years, claimed to be an expert, and couldn’t answer that question, and that set me off on this amazing ride, studying humor and travelling the world, and trying my hand at stand-up comedy, actually.
Brett McKay: We’re going to get to that, your attempt, your stand-up comedy experience. Another surprise in your book, The Humor Code, is that there’s actually some serious scholarship being done about humor, and by serious, I mean really serious. Can you talk about some of this research that goes on about humor?
Peter McGraw: Sure, yeah. It is a little bit of a juxtaposition, to approach such a lighthearted topic in the serious way, and there are serious debate. Actually, this question is an age old question. It goes back 2500 years to Plato and Aristotle, and frankly, people a lot smarter than me had been trying to crack the humor code since Greek philosophy. Freud wrote about it, Hobbes wrote about it, Immanuel Kant wrote about it, even humorists like Mark Twain and Mel Brooks have written about it, and so it really is a puzzling question. There’s a small set of scholars in modern day, they actually have their own professional society, the International Society for Humor Studies, that take this topic very seriously and debate this stuff and review each other’s papers and so on.
Those people, some of our behavioral scientists like me, some of them are linguists and historians and philosophers and so on. It’s actually a quite diverse group of people. I’m really an outsider relative to those folks, but they operate just like the physicists and the psychologists and the sociologists who are trying to explain hard science, resolve science puzzles.
Brett McKay: Yeah and I guess they’re still puzzling with that question, grappling with it.
Peter McGraw: Yeah. I believe if they listen to me, they can move on.
Brett McKay: There you go. You just need to read The Humor Code.
Peter McGraw: You just read my papers, and obviously, I’m exaggerating, but I do think there was … I felt like when I approached this question, I felt like I had 2 advantages compared to people who’ve tried to understand humor historically and the people who are trying to understand it in present day, so relative to the people who are trying to understand it historically, I could run experiments, so I even created a lab, a behavioral lab called “Humor research lab” designed to be able to run experiments, and experiments is what differentiates psychology from philosophy. You’re going from doing thought experiments to doing real experiments, and that’s a huge advantage because you can actually test your ideas.
The second advantage that I had was that I was an outsider, that is that no one had ever sat and taught me on day 1 of graduate school what people believed made things funny, and so I actually had 10 years to try to understand emotions more broadly, and then got to approach this question from that perspective, and that has proven to be a really valuable advantage, I believe.
Brett McKay: You didn’t have to deal with the humor dogma that might exist out there.
Peter McGraw: Exactly, yeah, like there’s this long history of pretty good theories, but they’re not strong theories anymore, but if you’re taught those, it’s hard to unlearn them, so that was a really useful thing. In science, this happens all the time. It’s not the senior-most, it’s not the 65 year old professor who needs to finish this puzzle right before he retires. That’s not the person who has big insights, it’s actually the person who has enough knowledge, but is still fresh enough to take a new perspective, and I think that ended up being the case here.
Brett McKay: Got you. Let’s get into some of your findings. Before we get to the what and how of humor, first question is why does humor exist in the first place? Why do we laugh? Because if you step back and look at it, it’s kind of a weird thing that we do. We just make these weird noises, gesticulations, we smile, breathe, pant, why do we have that?
Peter McGraw: It is, and so to answer that question, you have to answer a broader question of what is the function of humor more generally. Not just the behavioral expression of it, laughter, but also then why does it feel so good? You know what I mean, and why is it that we point at certain things and say “That’s funny” and not point at other things and say the same thing, and the idea of laughter is one of the great hints at understanding what it is that makes things humorous because for instance, the fact is that you don’t need language to indicate to someone else that something’s funny.
You don’t have to be able to say “That’s funny” for someone to know that you’re finding something amusing, so not only can you express this cross culturally, for instance, but babies, for instance, can express this prior to the development of language, and this is the real mind blowing stuff, is that other mammals do the same thing, engage in this, so you don’t … It is a very primitive communication tool and it’s one that we actually share with mammals, most notably non-human primates, like monkeys and apes and bonobos and so on, so I’ll give you my quick answer to why we laugh, and it’s this. It’s that we’re signalling to others that a potentially threatening situation is actually safe, we’re signalling to others the situation that seems wrong is actually okay, we’re signalling to others that something that seemingly doesn’t make sense actually makes sense or what we call in the Humor Research Lab “A benign violation.”
Brett McKay: Got you. This leads into what makes something funny or what makes a joke funny or a situation funny, it’s this whole “Benign violation” theory.
Peter McGraw: Yes, that there’s these 2 appraisals that something’s wrong yet okay, and not only is the theory really good at pointing to the things that are funny, it actually does a nice job of explaining when things are not funny, when there will be no laughter, and that’s actually a problem with a lot of the prior theorizing is that they were often very good theories that if you looked at only at funny things, they seem to have those conditions, but when you think about telling a joke, telling a joke’s not an easy thing because it’s actually more likely than not, you’re going to fail because there’s more ways to fail than there are to succeed. You can offend your audience, is one way to fail, and you can bore your audience, is another way to fail, and in one case, you’ve created a situation that’s just wrong, there’s nothing okay about it, and the other situation, you created a situation that’s not wrong enough, it’s just okay.
You’re constantly finding the sweet spot as a joke teller or as a consumer of comedy trying to find the right sitcom or rom-com or the right comedian who’s able to find that sweet spot of wrong yet okay for your particular tastes.
Brett McKay: What’s a sort of a very…example of a comedic … Something that’s wrong but not wrong?
Peter McGraw: Let’s actually step back, let’s talk about our little furry friends. Let’s talk about apes, and well I guess they’re not that small, but let’s talk about apes and let’s talk about rats for a moment, okay? They also laugh, it’s not actually laughter, it’s often called “Play panting” in the case of apes, and in the case of rats, I don’t even know if there is a good term for it.
Brett McKay: You talked about it in your book, like they tickle rats. There’s scientists … That’s what they do is like tickle rats.
Peter McGraw: They get paid to do it also. Yeah, indeed. Nowadays, they’re being paid by big pharma to tickle rats, which is I think a very interesting fact. The back story on that quickly is that right now, the pharmaceutical solutions for depression are designed to try to remove depression, but there aren’t pharmaceutical solutions that increase happiness, and the goal someday is to have happy pills.
Brett McKay: That’s brave new world stuff right there.
Peter McGraw: It’s totally brave new world stuff, but to do that, you need to be able to understand what actually is happiness, and so they use rats. They try to look at what makes rats happy with the goal of trying to mimic that physiological process, and one of the things that makes rats happy is tickling them and jostling them and play fighting with them, flipping them over and rubbing their bellies and stuff like that, which you or I can’t do, but the people the rats know and trust can do, and when they do that, when these scientists do that with rats, these rats make this sort of chirping sound.
It’s an ultrasonic sound, you can’t hear it with the human ear but you can pick it up with a bat detector, and this is the signal of positive emotion, and it goes even beyond this, this is absolutely fascinating, is that once these scientists start roughhousing, play fighting, tickling these rats, the rats will seek out this activity that is if the scientist moves his hand to the other side of the cage, the rats will chase the hand trying to elicit more of this experience, and if you think about it from a rat’s perspective, this experience is a benign violation, right? It’s threatening yet safe, and what they’ve done with these studies is if they make these playful attacks not playful anymore, they get really aggressive. The rats all of a sudden make a different noise. They make the same noise that they make when they fight each other.
It’s the equivalent of “I’m telling the joke and people are laughing, and then I go too far, I get to risque, and then all of a sudden, people are angry.
Brett McKay: You get the groans.
Peter McGraw: Yeah, or worse, right? People start throwing eggs at you or whatever it maybe, or fire you in the case of people going too far on Twitter or in the workplace and so on, and the same is true for non-human primates. They engage in play fighting. Again, it has this element of the situation is kind of scary but safe. When it comes to tickling, tickling works in the same way with humans. You can’t tickle yourself, no violation, and if a creepy guy in a trench coat try to tickle you, nothing benign, right? It’s only when you trust the person and it’s done in a particular kind of way that fits that. Taking that to the world of comedy, now it’s not physical threats anymore, but it’s absurdities, it’s logic violations, it’s violations of cultural norms, violations of social norms. When you think about it, comedy plays on things that are wrong. You don’t have comedians who get up and say “Oh what a beautiful day. I saw the best rainbow.”
What they’re doing is they’re talking about bad traffic and airline food and dumb people and so on and so forth, right? There are plenty of violations there, it’s just how do you find a way to not go too far, to tell a joke about race that offends.
Brett McKay: That was the question, like how do you know, how do you figure that out, because we’re on an abstract level, they’re just words, right? There’s really no … If someone says a really offensive joke, there’s nothing physically happening to you on a primal level I guess, but yet there is a violation with words.
Peter McGraw: There’s a right and wrong.
Brett McKay: How does that line drawn? Does it change over time? What goes on there?
Peter McGraw: What you’re highlighting is what makes my job as a scientist very difficult and what makes the job of the wannabe funny person very difficult. You could do what comics do, which is use some combination of instinct and experience, and actually empirical testing to figure out what’s going to be funny and not, so if you ever go to a comedy club, when you Louis C.K. do an hour special, it just seems like the man is just naturally the most funny person that you … Among the most funny people in the world. What you don’t see is that for the previous 364 days, Louis has been honing that material, trying this joke night in and night out, and tweaking it here and there and seeing what gets bigger or lesser laughs with it, and throwing out material that doesn’t work and keeping all the best stuff.
He’s a very funny guy to begin with, he’s got great instincts, but what he does is he writes hundreds of jokes, and usually only one of a hundred make it, and he just has to figure out which are the ones that are going to make it and he does it through a very rigorous, even in many ways, unromantic testing process, which is going to little clubs and trying these kinds of things out. What I think is interesting is the theory may help cut that learning curve because the theory starts to explain a whole bunch of things, explains why one person’s laughing, another person’s bored, and another person’s offended, because each of those people see the world in a different way. They’re threatened to differing degrees by you pointing out what might be wrong with the world, with yourself, with them, with politics, and so on.
There are some hints at ways that you might be able to try to find the kinds of topics that are more universally going to be accepted rather than … How do I say this? Rather than just saying “I’m just going to put this out there, scatter shot and see what ends up working.”
Brett McKay: That gets people into trouble, like you said on Twitter or whatever.
Peter McGraw: Yeah. Nowadays, this is a big problem. The comedy clubs were always a safe place that is the people were going, they knew that there was some risk involved, and that a joke that would be told that bombed, a comic trying a new joke about a risque topic and that joke doesn’t go over well, here she just moves on to the next joke, no big deal, people are momentarily upset and a good comic can bring the audience back, but now with Twitter, with YouTube, it just takes someone recording bad joke or tweeting about that joke or writing a blog about that joke, that then it could become known to not only the people in that city, but the people all over the world, and that joke wasn’t necessarily meant for a broad audience and is being taken out of context and all these kinds of things, and so it makes this world a little bit more difficult for the average stand-up.
Brett McKay: Are the comedians doing anything to counteract that, like banning cellphones or things like that?
Peter McGraw: Yeah, you do get comedians who yell at audience members for videotaping their bits. That’s certainly the case. One thing that has happened that’s really fascinating, I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but a number of high profile comedians have stopped performing on college campus.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the whole trigger warning stuff.
Peter McGraw: Yeah, because there’s a notion that there’s enough sensitivity, some people call it sensitivity, some people call it knowledge of hegemony that a lot of things that would normally be funny for a beer drinking Friday night comedy club crowd doesn’t work to a broad audience, and sometimes a very diverse audience on a college campus.
Brett McKay: You mentioned that we have this theory that can possibly work as a shortcut to freaking out.
Peter McGraw: Perhaps, yeah. I have no data on that unfortunately, but I do believe that to be the case.
Brett McKay: You mentioned that Louis C.K. has good instincts, which I hear that’s like … Is there something with genetically or something that Louis C.K. that makes him more sensitive to figuring out that benign theory? Basically, the question is are some people born funny?
Peter McGraw: Yeah, so I think that in the same way that some people are born fast, there are some people born funny. There are some people born cheerful, there are some people who are born with better sense of rhythm, that we’re not all created equal when it comes to a sense of humor, especially the ability to produce this humorous response in others, but I believe that’s actually not a handicap, that you can become funnier in the same that you can become faster, in the same way that you can become a better dancer, in the same way that you can learn to play piano, that you become a better public speaker, that you can overcome your shyness. There are a lot of things that we might have a predisposition towards, but with practice, with coaching, with feedback, you can improve.
For instance, Louis C.K., if you watch his old stuff, I don’t mean to pick on Louis C.K., I actually think he’s a really good comic, he doesn’t like the benign violation theory so I also like to use him as an example of how he fits so well. If you look at old Louis C.K stuff, you can see flashes of his brilliance, but he was 32 years old and he was a middling comic. He was struggling to make it happen, and what happened was he dedicated himself to the craft in such a way where he started really challenging himself and really trying to take things to the next level, and that’s when his career really took off. If people were born with a sense of humor, we would have these brilliant, hilarious 22 year old stand-ups, and that just doesn’t happen because you need to work hard to get good at it.
Louis has a pedophile joke that he almost gave up on it because he knew that it had the bones to be funny but he couldn’t make it work until he sort of … He just kept tweaking it, tweaking it, tweaking it, and then he found the magic phrase. He talked about this to Howard Stern, so the joke’s about like what’s the most horrendous that someone could commit. In his opinion, it’s not murder, it’s pedophilia, it’s to molest a child, and it’s so bad that these pedophiles are like at risk in prison and so on, and as a consequence, sometimes they kill their victims. Here we are, like we’re in big time violation territory. All of these topics get an audience aroused in a negative way, but he hasn’t said anything controversial at this point. What he does is he follows this logical chain, and he’s like “Well if you want to actually keep kids safer, keep them from being murdered, we should start taking it a little easier on pedophiles.”
Brett McKay: Oh boy.
Peter McGraw: That is this logic here, and your “Oh boy” comment is exactly how audiences would generally respond, and what he ended up finding that he had to do was he had to create a caveat before he followed this logical chain with this joke. Of course, as you might know, I’m not doing this joke justice for your listeners. They could probably easily Google it and see how he executes this, but he said that he had to add a little caveat that just said “I don’t know what to do with this information, but” and then he would follow the logical chain, so he then went from someone who was prescribing, telling people how to behave, to someone who was describing the “Objective facts” of this peculiar puzzle, and then when he started doing that, then that joke started getting laughs.
Brett McKay: Interesting. That’s the fine line, it’s like razor sharp.
Peter McGraw: It’s razor sharp, and it’s razor sharp in part because it’s the jokes that play on the biggest violations, on the things that are most wrong are the ones that get the biggest laughs typically. Now you did ask about like are you born funny or not. I can tell you the best predictor of a sense of humor, especially in terms of production, it’s just simply intelligence. It’s just being quick witted and knowing about the worlds, but when it comes to humor consumption, that is like tendency to laugh, that actually is just cheerfulness, just like having a sunny disposition, like going through life not feeling like the walls are closing in, and like things are bad, sort of being a little bit more cheerful is the best predictor on the opposite side, and what’s interesting is production and consumption tend to be uncorrelated.
If you laugh easily doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re funny. If you’re funny to other people doesn’t necessarily mean that you laugh easily.
Brett McKay: Got you. This idea that intelligence is what predicts humor or being able to produce humor, is that why women find men with a sense of humor attractive, like it’s a sexual signal for intelligence?
Peter McGraw: Yeah. One of things that we did with the humor code was try to understand this question of like … If you ask the average person, you say “Who’s going to be funny, a man or a woman?” If someone has a preference, they’ll usually say men.
Brett McKay: Chris Hitchens said that, like women can’t be funny, right?
Peter McGraw: Yeah. Well Chris was wrong.
Brett McKay: Well yeah, Tina Fey’s hilarious. She’s a lot of-
Peter McGraw: Yeah, so if you use the professional comedy ranks as your proof, then you come to all these wild conclusions, right? Does anybody believe that men make better doctors or better lawyers than women? I don’t think so, but the logic will be well there’s more male doctors than female doctors, hence it must be true. The world of comedy is not very welcoming to women. There’s not as many mentors, the clubs are run by men, there’s still a lot of institutional sexism that exist there, and it’s just not … Fewer women just try to do it from the very get go, but when it comes to just regular everyday people, not the pros, men and women tend to be more alike than different.
There is one finding that does stand out and it’s within a dating situation, there’s a situation for men to try more and women to assess more, and the belief is, the theory is that not only does a sense of humor suggest that 2 people are compatible, but your ability to be funny may suggest other valued characteristics, as you said, intelligence, so if you want to try to figure out if a guy is smart or not, if he’s able to make you laugh, it’s more likely that is smart than not smart in that kind of way, so the evolutionary psychologist of the world hone in on that finding, saying that it’s a sexual selection technique.
Brett McKay: Got you. Let’s talk about your experience. You went on this world wind tour, around the world, trying to figure out what makes something funny, and then the culmination of this is that you actually went up on on stage and did a stand-up routine, putting into practice all these theories you come up with based on your research. How did that experience go of creating a a stand-up routine based on science?
Peter McGraw: You have to understand that it was my second time on stage because my first time on stage was a total disaster. I actually got up on stage in Denver, Colorado, at the Squire Lounge, and did an open mic night, and totally bombed. I got one laugh and it wasn’t even an intentional laugh, and when I looked at the jokes I was telling, from a benign violation perspective, they were too benign. They might have been funny to my friends at a dinner party but they weren’t funny to the wannabe comedians and dirtbag hipsters at this dive bar, and my co-author Joel Warner was there in the audience and that actually really served as a foundation to travel to all these places, to go to the Amazon, to go to Tanzania, to go to Japan, to go to Scandinavia and so on, and Joel only agreed to do this trip if I agreed to get back on stage and to prove we’ve learned something along the way.
We went to the Just For Laughs festival, the world’s largest comedy festival, and performed at one of the shows, and it went better, it went much, much better, and it went better in a large part because what we did was we basically talked through all the different things that can help make something be funny, so we just pointed out all the weird things that we found during the travels, so when I got up on stage, I talked about these travels and I talked about the peculiarities of the people and places that we saw. As a result, I just played in a world of things being wrong, much more so than a world in which things were sort of okay.
For instance, I told a joke about how in Osaka, Japan, which is the comedy capital of Japan, you can walk up to a regular everyday person on the street and make your fingers into a gun and point it at them and go “Bam!” Those people will act like they’ve been shot, like this unstated joke that everybody in the city knows. It’s bizarre. The joke was like so I made that observation and then I said my plan is to use it to rob banks in the city next. These are not the world’s funniest jokes, but they’re not bad for a professor who studies what makes things funny rather than for a professor who’s truly a comedian at heart.
Brett McKay: You didn’t get booed off the stage, you got some laughs.
Peter McGraw: I got some laughs. It went all right, yeah, it actually really went all right now. If I had really gone after this, I would have done 30 dive bars prior to that to get things really, really honed in. Instead, I tried to make it a little bit more of an experiment and to use the things … I started the set with deprecation, so I made a joke about myself. That’s something that when you … I sometimes wear a sweater vest, I made a joke about my sweater vest, and when you make of yourself, that almost, by the nature of it all, is a benign violation. You’re pointing out something wrong with yourself, but it’s about yourself, and so that very easily gets a laugh and warms up the audience, and then it gives you more license to point out what’s wrong with everyone else, like the weird behavior in Osaka, Japan, for instance.
Brett McKay: When does like self deprecation go too far though, because I know there’s a lot of people who use that as their stick, but then they reach to a point where you’re just like “Man, it’s not funny anymore.”
Peter McGraw: Yeah, “You’re just a loser,” like that at some point. Good comedians, they use it, and then they move on. It’s a quick hit, and then they move on. I think the risk of using self deprecation is when it becomes constant, right? It’s like the person’s always going back to it, always going back to it, and then it starts to make not only you think of the person in the negative way because you … Part of point of being funny is that it’s well liked, that it enhances people’s assessment of you. If you do self deprecation too much, people might start to believe the negative things that you’re pointing out, and start to get really uncomfortable about it, because now you’re just worried that you’re just interacting with someone who has really low self esteem.
Brett McKay: Peter, this has been a really fascinating conversation, but before we go, I would like to end this podcast with a quick practical tip, take away, for the guys who listen to this right now, some of them, they’re probably natural comedians, but for those guys out there who aren’t that want to be a little funnier, what’s one thing they can do starting today to increase their humor a bit?
Peter McGraw: I think this is a straightforward prescription, and that is that you have to try, so you have to start to seek out situations where you try to be funny, and then you assess what works and what doesn’t work, and when you fail, be quick to apologize, don’t be defensive, “Oh it’s only a joke,” don’t blame the victim, just be like “Ah I was trying to be funny, sorry about that.” Store those failures away, store the successes away, and you can start to figure out, in the same way that you want to become a good free throw shooter, you got to practice free throws. If you want to become a funnier storyteller, you got to practice telling funny stories.
Brett McKay: Awesome. Peter McGraw, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Peter McGraw: Thank you, Brett.
Brett McKay: All right, guys, that was Peter McGraw. He’s the author of the book “The Humor Code.” You can find that on amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can also find out more information about Peter’s work at petermcgraw.org.
Well that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure you check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com, and if you enjoyed the show, you feel like you get something out of it, I’d really appreciate if you give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. That would help us get some feedback on how we can improve the show as well as get the word out about the podcast. Until next time, this is Brett McKay, telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 7, 2017