The Humor Genome Project
A journalist and a scientist walk into a bar… travel the world, return to the lab and come out with what is likely the best book you’ll read all year
by Vince Darcangelo
In my graduate form and technique class, our instructor, Steven Schwartz, devoted a three-hour class period to humor. I was shocked to learn that there was a dearth of comic literature to study.
Why had so few serious writers ventured down that rabbit hole?
“Comedy is not kind,” Schwartz explained to us. “There is blood in comedy, which is why most people shy away from being comic writers.”
Joel Warner and Peter McGraw would agree.
“We’re here to explore the dark side of humor, how comedy can divide and degrade,” they write in their new book, The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.
“Here,” in this case, is Denmark, but also Japan, Palestine, Peru and beyond. For more than two years, this odd couple of comedy—Warner a journalist (Westword, Wired, Slate) and McGraw a humor researcher/marketing instructor (at the University of Colorado at Boulder)—traveled the world to learn what incites nasal milk projectiles in other cultures.
Specifically, the intrepid twosome tested whether McGraw’s Benign-Violation Theory (BVT) of humor applied to an international audience.
The theory itself is quite intuitive and elegant in its simplicity: Humor arises from the violation of a norm (be it political, social, personal), but in a way that is recognized as harmless or good-natured (“jk”) by all involved.
The prime illustration is tickling. Taken outside of its traditional context, tickling is a clear violation of personal space, yet it sometimes elicits laughter.
More importantly for the BVT, sometimes it does not.
If a stranger on the bus jabs his fingers in your armpits and begins to wiggle them, the appropriate response is a slap or the tossing of a hot beverage in his face. This is a close encounter of the non-benign kind.
Now, pause for a moment and try to tickle yourself. Go ahead, no judgment. Couldn’t do it, could you? Your fingers go through the motions, but it’s just not the same. That’s because though your intention was benign, it was not a violation of personal space.
Therefore, not funny.
But let your personal tickle monster have at the back of your ear lobes, and you just might cry with laughter. It’s a violation of personal space, but by someone on the guest list—ostensibly with good intentions.
So that’s the theory of BVT, how about the application?
For that, Warner and McGraw visit a humor science library in Japan; deliver clown therapy to a Peruvian barrio alongside Patch Adams; interview notorious Danish cartoonists; participate in laughter yoga (yes, that’s a thing); attend comedy festivals; and McGraw even gives stand-up comedy a try in Denver’s toughest room.
That’s a lot to fit into a single book, but you’ll want to read every word. The Humor Code is an engaging blend of science writing, travel writing and narrative nonfiction. This is one of the best books you will read this year, and it is deserving of major awards.
Here I’ll pause for a short disclaimer. Let it be noted that Joel Warner is a friend of mine. I have cat-sat for him on occasion, not to mention the numerous times we’ve helped each other stumble home from the Boulder bars at 2 a.m.
For three years, Warner and I were co-workers at an alternative newsweekly in Colorado, and on a daily basis I was witness to his talent, integrity and work ethic. From our earliest days in the newsroom, the editorial team knew he would be writing best-selling books someday.
That day is today.
If I had to make comparisons, I would liken The Humor Code to Sam Kean’s The Disappearing Spoon and Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss. Like those two books, the reader comes away knowing more about the topic, and about the world at large, than they would’ve thought when they first cracked the spine—and in a way that makes you laugh as much as you learn.
Mixing the experimental with the anecdotal, here are a few of their discoveries:
- “Japan is a high-context society. The country is so homogenous, so unified in its history and culture, that most zingers don’t need set-ups at all.” (“The United States, on the other hand, is as low context as you can get.”)
- “…A sense of humor is seen as a sign of intelligence, social desirability and overall genetic fitness. In other words, good jokes are a guy’s version of colorful peacock plumes…”
- “We found humor designed to ease people’s pain, a laughter shared by Palestinian street kids and Israeli Holocaust survivors alike.”
The latter observation is the exclamation point to a friendly interaction between a Palestinian shopkeeper and an Israeli policeman. It was a beautiful moment that even had this cynical bastard singing “We Are the World.”
But there’s more to humor (and The Humor Code) than just the har-hars and the touchy-feelies. Alongside the camaraderie is the reality of political and cultural blowback. For the tender moments observed in Palestine, there is the reminder that the sketch comedy television show was shut down when it became too controversial. We learn that real life goes on for Patch Adams after his Hollywood ending. There is personal tragedy and, lest we forget, reminders of the embassies and churches that were set on fire, the people who were murdered and those who remain captives in their own homes for fear of their lives because of a newspaper comic.
Yes, because of a newspaper comic.
In a commentary that would do Professor Schwartz proud, Warner and McGraw write:
“We laugh loudest at the most arousing humor attempts, the stuff that’s laced with a bit of danger. So in order to come up with the best comedy, we have to skirt ever closer to the realm of tragedy, hurt and pain. For some people, the result will hit that perfect, hilarious sweet spot. For others, it goes over the line.”
Warner and McGraw aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, whether they’re mining gallows humor in war zones, dissecting the world’s funniest joke or bombing onstage before a crowd of angry drunks, these guys bravely submerse themselves in the blood sport that is comedy.
They write: “It’s almost as if making people laugh during dark and troubling times is so vital, so crucial, that it outweighs common sense, and maybe even self-preservation.”
Their observations are sharp, insightful and they’re not afraid to explore the breadth of emotions comedy elicits. They’re even bold enough to be funny on five continents.
Their conclusions? Well, you’ll have to read the book for those, but of course, as with all great literature, you’ll soon learn that the joy is in pursuing the question, not necessarily finding a definitive answer.
The journey might take you to some dark places, so be sure to pack a clown nose with your Band-Aids.
And may all your violations be benign.