Last August, I detailed the strange story of Peter McGraw, a CU-Boulder professor dead set on explaining what makes things funny. Since then, the odd tale has continued: A piece I penned for Wired magazine describes McGraw's continued efforts to crack the humor code, a scholarly odyssey that involves fart sprays, awkward questions about Louis C.K.'s penis size and tests on local medical marijuana patients to find out if pot makes everything funnier.
As I wrote in my Westword feature, great minds from Plato to Thomas Hobbes to Freud tried and failed to figure out why we laugh at some things and not at others. But nobody seemed to get it exactly right -- until, possibly, now. McGraw, along with his collaborator Caleb Warren, think they've hit upon the answer. They believe humor only occurs when someone perceives something to be a violation while simultaneously realizing that violation is in some way benign. This so-called Benign Violation Theory (BVT), which builds off work by Stanford linguistics professor Thomas Veatch, seems to McGraw and Warren to explain every kind of comedy, from puns to slapstick to Sarah Silverman.
To prove it, McGraw took his BVT for a test drive, trying his hand at stand-up for the first time at the Squire Lounge's open-mike comedy night, the toughest room in town -- and I tagged along. The results were less than spectacular: McGraw followed other comedians' jokes about smoking crack and slavery with a zinger about "Pete the Penetrating Ph.D.-Packing Professor."
You can't keep a good humor researcher down, however -- and McGraw's fateful night at the Squire just left him even more eager to get to the bottom of comedy. As I noted in the Wired story, he and his research assistants at his Humor Research Lab -- aka HuRL -- have lately teamed up with the local medical marijuana center chain Colorado Dispensary Services in order to test pot-smokers' funny bone. As it turns out, it's one of the first university-sanctioned medical marijuana studies in the state. Want to know what a medical marijuana humor experiment entails? Here's how I describe it in Wired:
It's a wintry February afternoon in Boulder and a 53-year-old tech worker named Kyle fires up a joint he obtained from a medical marijuana dispensary. After smoking his medicine and waiting fifteen minutes for it to take effect, Kyle opens a ten-page printed questionnaire. He sees a Photoshopped image of a man picking his nose so vigorously that his finger pokes out of his eye socket. "To what extent is this picture funny?" the survey asks, inviting Kyle to rate the picture on a scale of 0 to 5. He gives it a 3.
The experiment has yet to yield concrete results -- HuRL has been soliciting additional input from recreational pot smokers through Amazon.com's crowdsourcing marketplace, Mechanical Turk. But McGraw conjectures that, when it's all said and done, the tests will prove that marijuana does in fact make broad sight gags more funny. (The answer may seem forehead-smackingly obvious to anybody who's seen Dude, Where's My Car?)
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In the meantime, McGraw has continued to test the BVT in the wild, woolly world of real-life comedy. And, like at the Squire, the results haven't always been pretty. The Wired article describes a backstage encounter between McGraw and Louis C.K. when the red-hot stand-up was in town last fall for a packed show at the Paramount Theatre. McGraw was hoping the comedian, one of his favorites, would endorse the BVT. But things didn't go exactly as planned:
Knowing that he has only a few minutes, McGraw gives a nutshell version of his well-honed spiel. He lays out the BVT and describes the tickling conundrum that killed at the humor symposium. But CK cuts him off. "I don't think it's that simple," he says, directing as much attention to a pre-show ham sandwich as to McGraw. "There are thousands of kinds of jokes. I just don't believe that there's one explanation."
Oof, tough room. His research dismissed, McGraw casts about for another subject of inquiry. Luckily, he'd polled fellow attendees for questions while waiting for an audience with CK. "A woman in the lobby wants to know how big your penis is," he says.
Want to know what happens next? Check out the Wired story for the punch line.
More from our Media archive: "Quiznos' new commercials are the freakiest things we've ever seen -- but will they sell?" Follow Joel Warner on Twitter @joelmwarner