The Humor Code
Peter McGraw and Joel Warner
Simon & Schuster

By Josiah M. Hesse

Rating: ★★★☆☆

What’s the one thing we all do, but no one agrees about why we do it? Have sex? Vote for politicians? Pray to whichever god we decide to pray to?

Peter McGraw Joel Warner

While those issues might still be mysterious, they’ve also been pondered and pawed at by great thinkers for thousands of years. The question of Why We Laugh, however, has often been dismissed as the runt of the academic litter, rarely sucking on the teat of inquiry despite being one of clearest windows of insight we have into human behavior. 

This is what makes The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny such a compelling and addictive read. Within the brief collection of 212 pages, journalist Joel Warner and humor-research professor Peter McGraw traverse the globe, dissecting the rage at Denmark’s Mohammed cartoons, the subtle brilliance of The Onion’s 9/11 headline, examining a months-long African laughing epidemic that infected hundreds and attending Japanese torture game shows. 

“Humor only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling or threatening (i.e., a violation), but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable or safe,” says McGraw, director of CU Boulder’s Humor Research Lab. “When something is just a violation, such as someone 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…they feel amused, they laugh, or they make a judgement—‘That was funny.’”

Despite the simplistic framework, Warner and McGraw deliver a sprawling, exhaustive amount of research. Compressed into an accessible, beautifully woven narrative still cohesive enough to be satisfying, their benign violation theory feels pervasive when they acknowledge moral violations remain constantly in flux throughout time, geography and culture. 

Though organized neatly enough for easy consumption, the authors as lead characters offer a painfully dull contribution to the book. Inside a terrific amount of insight, research and calculation, Code utilizes a first-person, A.J. Jacobs-style narrative that attempts to sell a kind of intellectual buddy-comedy, with the wacky professor getting into hijinks with the nervous journalist like a Freakonomics version of Garden State.

McGraw and Warner are unfortunately much too polite and agreeable to fill their assigned roles. Speaking with some of the most creative people on the planet—while acknowledging that humor comes from testing the boundaries of acceptable behavior—their attemps make jokes, colorful metaphors or create complex narration ends up sounding more Nancy Drew than Fear and Loathing

Referencing the work of bohemian vagabond Arthur Koestler’s The Act of Creation, the authors say “Koestler described humor as ‘the clash of two mutually incompatible codes’—the fusion of two frames of reference that for the most part have nothing to do with each other.” While Code may not be that funny itself, it does contrast left-brain tools with right-brain creations (science and art), bringing together two worlds that superficially have nothing to do with each other. It may not convince you that science can be used to create humor, but it will impart the very science-y condition of wondering, whenever in a comedy club or watching a funny movie, “Why did I just laugh?”

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