"It's made me more compassionate in some ways, but also more cautious, because I know the risk of hurting people," McGraw says. "But you need to risk it if you want to make people laugh. It's a tightrope: Go too far and you get groans, but if you don't go far enough, you just bore people."

******

To put his theory to the ultimate test, McGraw decided to go to the Squire.

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.

"Thank you very much," he says into the microphone, once he gets it reconnected and begins his routine. "Being a professor is a good job. I get to think about interesting things. Sometimes I get my mind on something non-academic. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about nicknames.

"First, a good nickname is mildly inappropriate," he says. "An ex-girlfriend referred to me to her friends as 'Pete the Professor.' Not inappropriate, and not good. Now, if she referred to me as 'Pete the Penetrating Ph.D.-Packing Professor' — mildly inappropriate, and thus a good nickname."

But McGraw trips over the words "Pete the Penetrating Ph.D.-Packing Professor," and most people don't laugh. Nor do they chuckle at many of the other funny names he tries out: Terry the Dingleberry. Thomas the Vomit Comet. A sexy Asian woman named Me So Horny.

He throws out a line about "a well-endowed African-American," hoping to get some snickers, but it's too pedestrian for this crowd. Some of the biggest laughs come in response to things he doesn't intend as jokes. For example, when he says that most good nicknames involve alliteration, he pauses to explain the meaning of "alliteration," eliciting chuckles at his presumption.

People start turning away, and the background noise increases. By the time McGraw gets to the end of his four-minute routine — with a zinger about a 35-year-old virgin nicknamed Clumpy Chicken — he's lost much of the audience.

"Thanks. Have a good night," McGraw says, then leaves the stage amid a smattering of polite applause.

At the bar, mulling over his performance, McGraw is realistic but not overly disappointed. "You need to really practice this stuff," he says. "You can't just get up there and expect to kill." That he definitely didn't kill doesn't matter; for him, life is just one big experiment, and whatever happens produces fascinating data.

"I clearly underestimated the audience and the challenges in creating sufficient violations," he later writes in an e-mail. "This means that the Seinfeld Strategy would have needed to be multiplied several-fold."

Maybe he can learn a thing or two from Greg Baumhauer, the open-mike's MC, who gets up on stage after McGraw's act to punch the crowd back up. He has the perfect target in mind.

"I thought you were going to talk about your humor theory!" Baumhauer calls after the professor. "He has this theory, see...well, who cares. Obviously, it's WRONG!"

The crowd's back, laughing uproariously. But Baumhauer's not finished with McGraw yet.

"All you black people, that's a sweater vest he's wearing, not a bullet-proof vest."

He waits a beat.

"So go ahead and shoot him."

Now, that's a benign violation.

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