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Haverford Winter 2014 : Page 40

r o f g n i h c Sear What makes things funny? I traveled the world with a humor researcher to find out. By Joel Warner ’01 LAUGHS We tagged along on a trip led by physician/clown/social activist Patch Adams—and ended up dressed as Bozos in the heart of the Amazon alongside 100 other clowns. The cargo plane lurched and bucked as it hit a patch of turbulence somewhere above the Andes Mountains. I tightened the safety belt strapping me to the cargo netting and distracted myself from the mechanical whistles and squeals filling the long, hollow cargo hold by focusing on the tiny circle of sky I could see through one of the few windows in the fuselage. I considered passing the time by chatting with my seatmates, but I didn’t know what to say to them. 40 HaverfordMagazine

Searching For Laughs

Joel Warner ’01

What makes things funny? I traveled the world with a humor researcher to find out.

The cargo plane lurched and bucked as it hit a patch of turbulence somewhere above the Andes Mountains. I tightened the safety belt strapping me to the cargo netting and distracted myself from the mechanical whistles and squeals filling the long, hollow cargo hold by focusing on the tiny circle of sky I could see through one of the few windows in the fuselage. I considered passing the time by chatting with my seatmates, but I didn’t know what to say to them.

That’s because they were all clowns.

Next to me, a lady dressed as a giant bee fiddled with her red clown nose. Across the aisle, a young woman wove rainbow-colored pipe cleaners into her dreadlocks. Bubbles floated through the cargo hold, and a bright yellow smiley-face balloon wafted here and there as if this were a birthday party. Someone soon started up a round of “Oh! Susanna,” and others joined in on kazoos.

I was crammed into a Peruvian Air Force cargo plane headed into the heart of the Amazon with 100 clowns, my goal to answer a seemingly simple question: What makes things funny? I was joined in this quest by Peter McGraw, strapped in nearby and trying and failing to take a midflight nap. (Even the most advanced noise-canceling earphones, it turns out, are no match for kazoos). McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, is an honest- to-God, university-sanctioned, peerreviewed humor researcher. Together, we’re the authors of the book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny,which hits bookstores on April 1.

The idea of the book was to take all of the zingers, wisecracks, and witticisms we take for granted and subject them to hardand- fast scientific study. Over the course of a year and a half, that concept took us all over the world—and like the best experiments, not everything went as planned. For example, we arranged this trip to the Amazon to explore whether laughter really is the best medicine: Is there scientific proof to Norman Cousins’ famous claim that humor cures? When we heard that celebrated hospital clown Patch Adams was leading the comedic version of a biohazard team into one of the most beleaguered and destitute places in the Peruvian jungle, we knew we’d found the perfect method of analysis. Patch and his crew were happy to have us along—on one condition. We had to become clowns ourselves.

With a stomach-roiling dip, the cargo plane began its descent, causing my rednosed seatmates to clap and cheer like lunatics. Huddling awkwardly in my seat, I thought about what my wife, Emily, had said when I’d told her about this trip. She’d patted my arm consolingly and told me, with all the insightfulness of her Bryn Mawr education, “You’re not going to be a good clown.”

My foray into the wild and wooly extremes of humor science began the way most things do in my life: in the midst of looking for a story. I’ve worked as a journalist since I graduated from Haverford in 2001, penning long-form stories for a variety of alternative newsweeklies and magazines. And in truth, I’m not your typical news hound. While my colleagues thirst for tips on dirty cops and city-hall corruption, I prefer stories on real-life superheroes and beer-delivering robots. I’ve shadowed a McDonald’s franchise owner who used his arsenal of fast-food inventions to break the world’s record for drive-through Quarter Pounders served in an hour, and I followed a coffee connoisseur to Ethiopia in search of the shadowy origins of the world’s most expensive coffee bean. (That expedition broke down several dozen miles short of its goal, thanks to caffeine-fueled bickering, impassable muddy roads, and reports of man-eating lions.)

In the spring of 2010, while working as a staff writer for the Denver, Colo., altweekly Westword, I heard about a Boulder professor who was dissecting comedy’s DNA. I knew I’d found my next story.

McGraw, I soon learned, had launched what he called the Humor Research Lab— also known as HuRL. McGraw, the sort of energetic and engaging professor who goes by “Pete” instead of “Dr. McGraw,” explained to me he was after a grand, unifying theory of humor. The subject had stumped scholars and philosophers for millennia (see sidebar), but that didn’t stop McGraw. Collaborating with then doctoral student Caleb Warren and building off the work of a linguist named Thomas Veatch, he had developed the “benign violation theory,” the idea that humor arises when something seems wrong or threatening but is simultaneously OK or safe. Tickling fits this model perfectly; it involves violating someone’s physical space in a benign way. People can’t tickle themselves, because it isn’t a violation; they also won’t laugh if a stranger tries to tickle them, since there is nothing benign about that violation.

McGraw had been putting the benign violation theory to the test in HuRL experiments, with encouraging results. In one study, a researcher approached subjects on CU-Boulder’s campus and asked them to read a scenario inspired by a story about legendarily depraved Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. In the story, Richards’ father told his son to do whatever he wished with the father’s cremated remains—so when his dad passed away, Richards (the story goes) decided to snort the ashes. Then the subjects of the research were asked about their reactions to the story. As it turned out, those who found the tale of Richards and his obscene schnozzle simultaneously “wrong” (a violation) and “not wrong” (benign) were three times more likely to smile or laugh than those who deemed the story either completely OK or utterly unacceptable.

Impressive results, but I wanted to see McGraw’s theory in action. As part of my Westwordstory, I asked him to accompany me to a Denver stand-up show, so he could use his theory to critique the comedians.

He offered one better. “How about I get up on stage myself?”

The ad hoc experiment took place at an open-mic night at the Squire Lounge, a dingy watering hole proudly displaying awards for “Best Dive Bar in Denver.” Other comics at the event, known as the toughest open-mic in the city, got the crowd roaring with sex jokes and tales of drug use. McGraw, on the other hand, wore a sweater vest and began with a zinger in which he called himself “Pete the Penetrating Ph.D.-Packing Professor.” The experiment’s results were less than encouraging.

The tale made for good copy in my story, and soon publishing companies were interested. Could there be a book in all this humor research? McGraw was encouraged by the response, but his stand-up attempt had given him pause. It was clear, he told me, that to really understand humor, he had to venture out into the big, comical world beyond the confines of his lab—and he invited me to come along.

Quit my job and travel the globe in search of humor’s underpinnings? Sure, I replied. Anything for science.

Before we knew it, McGraw and I had a deal for a book—but there was still the question of how to actually write it. How, exactly, could we hope to adequately survey the wide world of humor? We settled on compiling a list of intriguing questions about what makes things funny; then, for each question, we came up with a destination that could help us get to the bottom of it. For example, to investigate why humor is so subjective, why what’s funny varies so widely from place to place and person to person, we traveled to Japan and immersed ourselves in the country’s unique brand of hilarity, including finagling our way onto the set of a surreal Japanese game show. And to deconstruct the odd mannerism of laughter, we crisscrossed Tanzania, looking for clues that could explain the country’s 1962 laughter epidemic, in which more than a thousand people came down with mysterious, uncontrollable laughing. And to understand why humor occurs where you least expect it, why it arises in times of turmoil and tragedy, we ventured into the West Bank and compared notes with the satirists behind Palestine’s version of Saturday Night Live.

Meanwhile, McGraw launched a series of HuRL experiments to help us answer various conundrums that arose along the way. Such as, do comics need to come from screwed-up childhoods? And what’s the secret to winning The New Yorker cartoon caption contest? Who’s got a bigger funny bone—men or women? And do the French really love Jerry Lewis?

The investigations were far from your typical research ventures. For example, to determine whether alcohol consumption makes people funnier—whether Lenny Bruce-level debauchery leads to Lenny Bruce-level laughs—we devised the “Mad MenExperiment.” We took an ad-agency creative team for a night on the town in Manhattan, tasking the members with sketching out a new funny advertisement after each drink they polished off. While the mad men and women rated their humor attempts funnier as the night wore on, when we later submitted their ads to an online survey panel, we found the inebriated ad team was way off the mark. According to the panel’s respondents, by the time the ad team reached a fifth drink, the ads weren’t just less funny, they were markedly more offensive. Some of the team’s inebriated creations were so distasteful, it’s a good thing McGraw had tenure before he had to reveal the results.

To cap off our work, we tackled one final, high-stakes experiment. Using everything we’d learned, McGraw once again tried his hand at stand-up, but at a significantly grander stage than the Squire Lounge: the Just for Laughs Comedy Festival in Montreal, the largest comedy event in the world.

How’d he do? That’s a question best left for the book. But there was another outcome of our travels, one that was wholly unexpected. Not long after McGraw’s Just for Laughs comedy routine, a friend of mine back in Denver caught me off guard. “You know,” he told me one evening, “I think you’ve gotten funnier.”

I was taken aback. I’d spent so much time scrutinizing other people’s funny bones I hadn’t spent much time considering my own. But now that I thought about it, maybe he was right. Maybe I’d gotten funnier. Take our voyage into the Amazon with Patch Adams and his hospital-clown retinue. As it turns out, maybe for the first time ever, my wife was wrong about something. I was not a bad clown. There, in the slums along the Amazon, I’d put on my garish Hawaiian shirt, my extra-large polkadot tie, and my red bulbous nose, and clowned with the best of them—throwing myself into games of hide-and-seek with street kids, playing peekaboo with giggling babies, and chasing rumbling motor taxis down the street like a maniac.

As Adams told me during the trip, “I never said laughter is the best medicine.” But he does believe humor and laughter help people break down barriers, speak truth to power, and cope with what’s ailing them—and that’s a form of healing, too. According to Adams, clowns are all about shaking things up: “The jester is the only person in the king’s court who can call the king an asshole.” That’s exactly what the clown costume had done for me: It had shaken everything up, pulled me out from behind my reporter’s notepad, and allowed me to get in touch with my inner buffoon.

Was my comedic coming-out party due to McGraw’s benign violation theory? Possibly in part. In truth, since our expedition began, I had started to notice all the potential violations lying around that were waiting for me to make benign. But that couldn’t be the full explanation for why I’d become funnier. After all, even if we did come a bit closer to cracking the code behind humor, we were far from finding the algorithm that will mass-produce great jokes like Big Macs. Humor is and will continue to be part art and part science— that’s what makes it so much fun. If you want to become a world-class humorist, a good formula or two might set you in the right direction—but it won’t get you all the way. To do that, you have to explore new ideas and challenge your assumptions. You have to venture out of your comfort zone.

That’s exactly what I did. I quit my job, circumnavigated the globe, and now count among my friends stand-up comics and celebrated cartoonists, joke connoisseurs and improv performers, rat ticklers and revolutionaries, and one very sweaty Patch Adams. Experiences like that change you. For one thing, I have a lot more witty yarns in my comic repertoire. For another, I’ve found there’s a lot more to life—not to mention a lot more to laugh at.

And these days, I keep my clown nose handy. Just in case of emergencies.

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