What makes us laugh? Professor Peter McGraw thinks he's found the answer to one of humanity's greatest questions

Peter McGraw walks into the Squire Lounge just as the bar is starting its Tuesday open-mike comedy night. Looking around, he cracks a delighted grin."This is fantastic!" he exclaims, sounding like a field biologist who's just discovered a strange new breed of animal. The mirrored walls proudly display awards for "Best Dive Bar in Denver," the stench of industrial cleaner hangs in the air, and the sounds of hollering drunks and clanging beer bottles blend into the sirens of fire trucks wailing along East Colfax. The quickly proliferating crowd sports tattoos and ironic mustaches, lumberjack shirts and plastic-rimmed glasses.

McGraw is wearing a sweater vest.

The University of Colorado at Boulder professor doesn't mind that he sticks out like a 6' 5", forty-year-old sore thumb. Over the course of his career, he's poked around many places he doesn't quite belong, everything from funeral-director conventions to giant evangelical churches, in an attempt to make sense of these institutions — or, more accurately, study what doesn't seem to make sense. McGraw is part of a growing and increasingly influential group of scientists, psychologists and economists who are trying to explain the folly in human behavior, seeking out the logic behind all the illogical things people are always doing.

Professor Peter McGraw may not be a standup comic, but he's a renowned consumer psychologist, seriously researching funny.
Mark Manger
Professor Peter McGraw may not be a standup comic, but he's a renowned consumer psychologist, seriously researching funny.
Ah, the humanity! Peter McGraw and HURL, his research lab, have been studying the meaning of Hot Tub Time Machine.
Mark Manger
Ah, the humanity! Peter McGraw and HURL, his research lab, have been studying the meaning of Hot Tub Time Machine.

Lately he's been investigating what may be the most irrational human behavior of all, determining why we find things funny. He thinks he may have the answer — and to prove it, tonight he's going to get up on stage.

McGraw is strikingly calm for someone who's never done standup before. Or for someone who's been told that this is the toughest open mike in town; as local comedian Adam Cayton-Holland puts it, "If you fail at the Squire, you will not only fail hard, but then will be cruelly, cruelly mocked."

Or, for that matter, for someone whose tenure application is due at CU tomorrow.

Rolling up the sleeves of his button-down shirt, McGraw orders a Jameson on the rocks. Soon he orders another. He chats up a woman by the pool table, another open-mic first-timer. "Did you think about your outfit tonight?" he probes. "I put this on so I look like a professor."

He glances around the room, then offers a piece of advice: "No joking about Marxism or the industrial complex."

He speaks with authority. His research is starting to garner international attention. An article he co-wrote outlining his theory appeared this month in the prestigious journal Psychological Science, catching the attention of the BBC and the Wall Street Journal. While McGraw's still testing his concept, longtime humor scholars are already calling his work a significant step forward in the field.

But stuffy academics are a world away from the people who've come to the Squire tonight to cheer and jeer the comics, patrons now packed in so tightly their communal body heat is overwhelming the slowly rotating ceiling fans. Greg Baumhauer, the open-mic's MC, taps the sensibility of the crowd by getting the show rolling with a few zingers about smoking crack. As the room roars in approval, Baumhauer turns his attention to three innocent-looking audience members who've unwisely chosen to sit at the table closest to the stage — allowing Baumhauer to wax poetic about the horrendous sexual violations the wide-eyed threesome must perform on one another. Turns out the three are friends of McGraw's who thought it would be nice to cheer him on.

As Baumhauer introduces the first of the night's amateur comedians, McGraw slips to the back of the room to glance over his cue card of jokes. "I'm worried my routine may be a little benign," he admits as the comic on stage fires off some slavery jokes. "I think it will be fine," he continues, but he's starting to look a little less sure of himself. After all, one of his favorite jokes is a quote from E.B. White: "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies of it.

Finally, it's time. "This next guy isn't a comedian," says Baumhauer, "but a moderately funny professor from the University of Colorado. Give it up for Dr. Peter McGraw!"

McGraw bounds up on stage and grabs the microphone from the stand — promptly disconnecting it from its cord. The audience goes silent as the professor fumbles with the device.

Before the night is over, a frog or two may bite the dust.

*****

While Peter McGraw is technically an expert in the amorphous concepts of judgment, emotion and choice, he prefers the term "consumer psychologist," because, as he likes to say, it's "stickier."

McGraw spends a lot of time considering such things, tinkering with the brand that is Peter McGraw. For the first time in his life, he's been drinking coffee in order to increase his academic output, but he's carefully monitoring its effects on his sleep patterns and moods so as not to throw anything off. He's put himself on a steady diet of 1.5 books a week, reading up on topics ranging from new concepts in urban development to the economics of independent contractors to the method Stephen King uses to churn out his horror novels. His university office is impeccably organized, with piles of work papers arranged by subject, stacked in perfect columns and labeled with tidy Post-it notes. And lately he's been experimenting with wearing sweater vests he's bought at Banana Republic and Zappos.com, both in the classroom and as his everyday attire, trying to find the right balance of scholarly authority and laid-back panache. For a guy like him, the sort of professor who goes by "Pete" instead of "Dr. McGraw," a cardigan just doesn't cut it.

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