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.
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.
His work has paid off: The Peter McGraw brand keeps getting stickier. In 2004, after completing his post-doctoral training at Princeton, he got a position as assistant professor of marketing at CU's Leeds School of Business. Since then, he's become one of the school's highest-rated teachers, reports his department chair, Donald Lichtenstein, and he received a courtesy appointment to CU's department of psychology and neuroscience in 2008.
McGraw's psychology background makes him a perfect fit for Leeds's marketing department. "Psychology informs so much of what we do in business, from consumer behavior to advertising to pricing," Lichtenstein explains. "McGraw is talking about taking principles from his training in psychology and actually showing how it's not just pie-in-the-sky stuff, but that this stuff is happening every day in the consumer marketplace and that you need to be aware of it."
In the process, the professor has made a name for himself at Leeds. Before he walks into each class, McGraw imagines going to a party and telling a bunch of really entertaining stories. "Just like Colt 45," he says. "It works every time." He helped launch an experimental research group at CU called the Judgment, Emotion, Decision and Intuition Lab, more commonly known as the JEDI Lab. And he's known for having research assistants hang out in the lobby of the Leeds building, handing out candy bars in exchange for students filling out unusual surveys that he's dreamed up to plumb the peculiarities of their emotions and decisions.
"Pete has a lot more courage than most academics," says Phillip Tetlock, a mentor of McGraw's who teaches at the University of California, Berkeley. "He is willing to live his research." One time, after being invited to a Thanksgiving dinner at the home of some of his colleagues, McGraw offered to pay for the entire meal, just to see their reaction to an obvious social faux pas.
All of it — the compulsive self-branding, the strange experiments — stems from McGraw's obsession with making sense out of insanity, order out of chaos. "It's a way to keep control in an uncertain world," he explains. He faced the harsh realities of that uncertain world as the son of a single working mom in New Jersey who at times fed her kids with food stamps. It made him realize the value of a dollar, but it also made him notice that most people seemed to be making major, life-changing decisions without considering the value of their money at all. Everywhere he looked, they were spending erratically, making poor investment choices, accepting gambles with risky odds — and more often than not, they suffered for it.
To solve the puzzle of all those bad choices, McGraw studied psychology at Rutgers University, then pursued his Ph.D. in quantitative psychology at Ohio State University, focusing on judgment and decision-making. He and his advisor researched why Olympic bronze medalists are more satisfied than silver medalists, and determined that because silver medalists have higher expectations, they are more susceptible to disappointment. He had basketball players take free throws from different parts of the court, asking them to rate their odds of making it before each shot — and discovered they almost always overestimated their chances and were nearly always more dissatisfied than they ought to be. By encouraging people to be more realistic about their likelihood of success — cutting expectations down to size, so to speak — McGraw and his colleagues learned they could make people much happier with their choices.
McGraw soon found himself on the forefront of a new field called behavioral economics, part of a renegade group of scholars who were beginning to question a basic tenet of classical economics: that people naturally weigh costs against benefits and make logical decisions maximizing value and profit. What started out as a fringe discipline is now an authority to be reckoned with, especially after the recent housing and banking collapse revealed that even the financial masters of the universe didn't seem to be making decisions all that logically. Nudge, a 2008 book that drew on the core concepts of behavioral economics, was named the "Best Book of the Year" by The Economist. And President Barack Obama has relied heavily on a cadre of behavioral economists to help craft his politics of change. One of those experts, psychologist Daniel Kahneman, won a 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics for his pioneering work in the field — while McGraw was sharing an office with him at Princeton.
Since joining CU's faculty, McGraw has investigated how money is used differently depending on the feeling it provokes in people — for instance, how the windfall from an inheritance is usually reserved for virtuous or practical expenses. He's looking at how policymakers opt for anti-terrorism programs that are most likely to help them avoid blame if an attack occurs instead of programs that are most likely to have results. And he's explored how funeral homes and drug companies exploit the public's tendency to consider concepts such as death and health care sacred and therefore above normal market pressures, allowing these industries to get away with charging people far more than their products and services are worth.
"His work on the tradeoffs people make in their lives is incredibly important and should become more and more relevant," says Dan Ariely, one of the leading behavioral economists and author of the best-selling book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. "We think it's not right to put a price on somebody's life or somebody's health. At the same time, in practical terms we do it all the time. For example, do we let people buy points for pollution? Do we make carbon offsets just another tradeoff, or a market commodity?"
But McGraw isn't just interested in how people act illogically with money — he's interested in how they act illogically all the time. A perfect example of this popped up two years ago, when he became fascinated with what could be the most illogical human characteristic of all.
While giving a talk at Tulane University in 2008 about how moral violations cause disgust, McGraw mentioned a news story about a church that was giving away a Hummer H2 to a lucky member of its congregation. The audience cracked up — and then one person raised a hand with a question: "You say that moral violations cause disgust, and yet we're all laughing. Why is that?"
McGraw was stumped. "I'd never thought about it," he says.
So he decided to figure it out.
Deep in the heart of CU's business school, four student volunteers file into a large white conference room, ready to take part in one of McGraw's most bizarre experiments yet. Once the test subjects have signed the appropriate consent and release forms, a somber-faced research assistant dims the lights and, using an overhead projector, starts screening a clip from the hit comedy Hot Tub Time Machine.
After watching ten minutes of graphic scatological gags and off-color sex jokes, the four students are asked a series of questions about the film. Did they find the scene funny in which BMW keys were removed from a dog's ass? What about the line "A taxidermist is stuffing my mom"? And how about the part where a character breaks his catheter and sprays urine on everybody? Did that scene make them feel uncomfortable?
While the questions may seem like fun and games, the results of this experiment will be taken very seriously. After all, laughter doesn't just create social bonds, alleviate conflict and allay stress; among other benefits, it's also big business. Those dog-anus and urine-spray jokes helped Hot Tub Time Machine gross over $100 million in box-office receipts worldwide. More than 20 percent of all television commercials use some form of humor. And the Cheezburger Network, a chain of popular humor sites including Lolcats and FAIL Blog, receives over 200 million page views every month, with the average visitor spending nine minutes a day trolling for laughs.
Humor may be easier to find than ever before, but insightful explanations of it are not. When McGraw first started investigating humor, he discovered that a multi-disciplinary organization, the International Society for Humor Studies, had been looking into the subject for several decades. But aside from putting out such intriguing journal articles as "Funny as Hell: Christianity and Humor Reconsidered" and "The Great American Lawyer Joke Explosion," the group was nowhere close to crying "Eureka!"
"People have been talking about humor for 2,500 years now, and we don't have definite answers for pretty basic questions," says Elliot Oring, ISHS president. Part of the challenge is humor's complexity. On the one hand, it's universal: Everyone laughs, from babies on up, as do chimps and other primates. On the other hand, what seems to make people laugh varies widely based on culture, age, gender and myriad other factors. The Romans apparently thought lettuce was downright hilarious, while fifteenth-century papal scribes at the Vatican were partial to stories about guys drinking pee. And then there's the conundrum that everybody everywhere agrees that Jerry Lewis isn't funny — except if you happen to be French.
In 2002, a British psychology professor who wanted to discover the world's funniest joke created a website where people could submit and rate jokes. The winning entry, after 40,000 submissions and 1.5 million ratings, wasn't exactly uproarious — it begins with two New Jersey hunters out in the woods and ends with one of them shooting the other to death — but it was general enough that at least everybody got the point.
McGraw found that over the centuries, valiant efforts had been made to explain why we laugh at some things and not at others, but no one seemed to get it exactly right. Plato and Aristotle, for example, developed the superiority theory of humor, based on the idea that people laugh at the misfortune of others. But while their premise seems to explain teasing and slapstick, it doesn't work for, say, a knock-knock joke. Sigmund Freud had a different view, arguing that humor was a way for people to release psychic energy pent up from repressed sexual and violent thoughts. This so-called relief theory works for dirty jokes, of course, but doesn't explain linguistic humor, such as puns.
These days, many experts subscribe to the incongruity theory of humor, which states that humor arises when people discover there's an inconsistency between what they've been led to believe and the actual outcome. Jokes with punchlines fit into this category remarkably well, but even the incongruity theory falls short of explaining why people laugh when they're tickled.
"What a lot of the major humor theories do is suggest there are different types of humor," says McGraw. "I just don't believe that."
There had to be a better answer. He found it one day by doing a Google search for "humor theory."
One Saturday evening in August, 1,400 people gather in Chautauqua Auditorium for TEDxBoulder, a conference highlighting cutting-edge ideas. As the sold-out audience watches in rapt silence, some of the most innovative thinkers around attempt to blow their collective minds. A tech CEO illustrates how he plans to put billions to work in Third World countries via cell-phone text messages. A bald-headed monk describes what it was like to spend six silent years in a cave in Burma. A renegade astrophysicist details a thrillingly incomprehensible new theory of the universe.
And Peter McGraw, dressed in his signature sweater vest, takes the stage to tell everybody why they find things funny.
He begins with a request: "In a few moments, I am going to ask you to stand up, turn to someone you don't know, and begin tickling that person."
As the crowd chuckles uncomfortably, McGraw says that he and his students think they've cracked the code as to why everyone's laughing.
The answer is something he calls the Benign Violation Theory, or the BVT.
The BVT arose from that fateful Google search two years ago. The second search result led to a bare-bones website featuring an HTML version of "A Theory of Humor," a paper in the May 1998 issue of HUMOR: The International Journal of Humor Research, by a Stanford linguistics student named Thomas Veatch.
Veatch seems to have disappeared (calls to several phone numbers listed under his name aren't returned, and online references suggest he's become a plumber), but his hypothesis stuck with McGraw. According to Veatch, humor arose when a person viewed something as being a violation of his or her values, as well as being "normal."
To McGraw, Veatch's theory appeared to be more accurate than all the others he'd studied, although it still had flaws. When Caleb Warren, a doctoral student working with McGraw, illustrated the theory with a made-up story about a man having sex with a dead chicken and then eating it, department head Lichtenstein quickly summed up the problem.
That situation may be funny, he said, but nothing about it is normal.
So Warren came up with new terminology that they thought improved upon Veatch's work. According to this amended theory, humor only occurs when someone perceives a situation as a violation and simultaneously realizes that the situation is also benign. Under this, the dead-chicken-sex story makes sense: While the violation it describes may not be normal, many people would consider it benign and therefore funny because they realize no actual chickens were harmed in the making of the joke.
Or take his tickle request, McGraw suggests to the TEDxBoulder audience, admitting that he's not going to make them do it. Asking them to touch a stranger was clearly a violation, but he made the situation benign by warning them that it was going to happen rather than by demanding that they do it on the spot.
Every kind of humor McGraw and Warren could think of fit into the BVT. Slapstick worked: Falling down the stairs, a physical violation, is only funny if nobody's actually hurt. A dirty joke trades on moral or social violations, but it's only going to get a laugh if the person listening is liberated enough to consider risqué subjects such as sex benign. Puns can be seen as violations of linguistic norms, though only cerebral types and grammarians care enough about the violation to chuckle.
Even tickling can be explained by the BVT, since it involves somebody violating someone else's physical space in a benign way. People can't tickle themselves, McGraw points out, because it isn't a violation. Nor will most people laugh if a creepy stranger tries to tickle them, since nothing about that is benign.
McGraw believes the BVT may even help explain why, biologically, humans evolved with the ability to laugh. It is clearly a beneficial trait to be able to correctly perceive when a violation is benign and communicate that to others via laughter, he points out. Early humans who were afraid of every apparent violation, real or not, weren't going to last long — nor were those who took one look at a woolly mammoth charging their way and did nothing but bust a gut.
Although the BVT hasn't made McGraw any funnier himself — "I guess some of it is, I'm satisfied with my level of funniness, so I am not aspiring to greater levels," he says — those who'd like to improve their shtick should find it handy. As he explains to the TEDxBoulder audience, people can make upsetting concepts more amusing by making them seem more benign. He calls this the Sarah Silverman Strategy, after the comedian who gets away with jokes on abortion and AIDs because the way she tells them is so darn cute. On the flip side, benign, everyday occurrences can be made hilarious by exposing how they actually violate common sense. McGraw calls this the Seinfeld Strategy.
Thanks to the BVT, McGraw now looks at the world in a new way. These days, after he hears a funny story, he'll usually exclaim, "Now, that's a benign violation!"
McGraw doesn't want to just talk about the BVT; he wants to prove the theory. So he and Warren launched a new research team at CU funded by a small grant from the Marketing Science Institute, plus contributions from McGraw's salary: The Humor Research Lab, or HuRL.
HuRL's been running tests like the Hot Tub Time Machine experiment to put the BVT through its paces. Other projects have involved asking participants to read about Keith Richards snorting his father's ashes, and subjecting them to a story about a man rubbing his bare genitals against a purring kitten. Next up? Using some of Colorado's abundant medical marijuana patients to test the age-old notion that stoners laugh at everything.
Many of HuRL's findings are convincing, McGraw says. They've discovered that they can use the concept of the BVT to make things more or less funny, for instance: Increasing the psychological distance between an extreme violation and the person who's supposed to get the joke makes it more more benign and funnier. Or, as Mel Brooks put it, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."
In unrelated research, a CU colleague of McGraw's had found that he could make test subjects feel less attached to a story he told them by first having them plot points on a two-dimensional graph that were far apart from one another. McGraw wondered if the same technique would work for humor, so he had participants plot various points on a graph before reading about the man having sex with a dead chicken. Sure enough, those who'd plotted points that were far apart on the graph were significantly more amused.
"It clearly worked," says McGraw. "It had this huge effect. I was thrilled."
The Hot Tub Time Machine experiment is an expansion of this research. Participants have been watching the clip while sitting at different places in the room, and McGraw is hoping to prove that participants who watch the dog-butt and pee-spray jokes 25 feet from the screen consider them more benign and funnier than people watching from five feet away.
Such findings could be lucrative for movie-theater companies, in just one of many practical applications McGraw sees for the BVT. Marketing provides other opportunities: HuRL has been actively testing how benign violations in advertisements can backfire. In one experiment, participants found a mock lime soda advertisement featuring a lime peeing into a glass of cola funny, but they weren't too thrilled about drinking the final product. Now HuRL has partnered with mShopper, a local cell-phone-based shopping service, to see if funny text-messaging ads developed by the researchers make people more likely to buy products through the service. One message they're hoping to try out: "We're cheap, quick and easy — and disease-free."
As HuRL develops, McGraw's even thinking of asking famous comedians if they'd like to help fund the research in order to improve their acts.
But the BVT doesn't just have the potential to help big business and big comics; it also has big implications for the research community. "I absolutely consider it significant; it furthers the field," says Don Nilsen, co-founder of the International Society for Humor Studies and co-author of the Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Humor. "I don't think there are any examples of humor that don't fit this."
But Elliot Oring, ISHS's current president, isn't convinced. "As a contribution to the discussion, I think it's fine," he says. "But as far as revolutionizing humor, I don't think so. All he seems to be doing is changing terminology."
Oring thinks the BVT isn't all that different from a concept put forward by Scottish philosopher James Beattie in 1778: "Laughter arises from the view of two or more inconsistent, unsuitable or incongruous parts or circumstances, considered as united in one complex object or assemblage." Another version of this idea, he says, is the "appropriate incongruity" theory of humor — a term coined in 1973 by Oring himself.
"To talk about benign violations, I think, is really, really good terminology," counters Nilson. Still, he's not sure it will revolutionize humor, because, like laughter itself, the BVT is completely subjective. "All of it is about one's perception of a joke," he explains. "You still can't say whether a joke is definitely funny or not, because whether it's a violation and whether it's benign is determined by age, gender, politics and many other things."
(At McGraw's TEDxBoulder talk, all his jokes elicit big laughs from the crowd — until he makes a quip about pedophiles and gets some groans. That line might go over with the students in his classroom, but there are too many concerned parents in this audience to make pedophilia feel benign.)
Even with the BVT, McGraw knows that making things funny isn't easy. If anything, his research has made him appreciate just how difficult it is to pull off good jokes, since they require just the right mix of pleasure and pain.
"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.
"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.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.