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Goodbye Westword, hello Humor Code: I'm off on a global search for what makes things funny

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After five years at Westword, I'm bidding you all adieu (at least for now). I'm taking a leave to work on the Humor Code, a book project in which I travel around the world with a humor professor in search of what makes things funny. Crazy? Yes. Foolhardy? Possibly. A damn good time? Definitely.

It all started with a Westword story I wrote about CU-Boulder professor Peter McGraw and his Humor Research Lab, aka HuRL.

When I first heard last summer about McGraw and his obsession with explaining humor once and for all -- a task that's stumped the likes of Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes and Sigmund Freud -- I knew it was too good a story to pass up. As it turned out, McGraw believed he was already well on his way to solving the riddle. McGraw and his collaborator, Caleb Warren, then a CU doctoral student, had come up with what they called the Benign Violation Theory -- the idea that humor only occurs when somebody perceives something to be a violation while simultaneously realizing that violation is in some way benign.

To prove the Benign Violation Theory worked, McGraw offered to try his hand at stand-up at the Squire Lounge's open-mike night, possibly the hardest comedy room in town. Naturally, I told him to go right ahead -- and the results were less than hilarious. (To give you a flavor of his shtick, McGraw opened with a zinger involving the nickname "Pete the Penetrating Ph.D.-Packing Professor.")

While the Squire's audience was less than impressed, others took notice. In the months that followed, I penned an article about McGraw and scholarly humor research for Wired magazine, and after that, the two of us received an offer from a book publisher we couldn't refuse: Since it was clear from his routine at the Squire Lounge that McGraw had lot to learn about comedy in the real world, why not launch a two-man, global exploration of what makes things funny?

So there you have it. McGraw and I have already compared notes with the world's premiere jokeologists at the International Humor Conference in Boston, hobnobbed with top comedians at the Montreal Just For Laughs Festival, even hunted for humor in Palestine. What's next on our global agenda? You'll have to follow us on Facebook and Twitter to find out.

As exciting as the endeavor is, it's not easy leaving Westword behind. After all, I've thoroughly enjoyed my five-year run here, from tracking down mysterious coffee beans in the jungles of Ethiopia to uncovering the strange and wonderful legacy of one of Denver's unsung heroes to accidentally becoming an expert in Casa Bonita. Then again, I see the Humor Code project as an extension of my Westword work -- albeit with a slightly longer deadline and larger word count than my typical weekly feature. (Yes, it is possible to write something that's even longer than Westword cover story; it just takes a lot of time and a book cover to hold it all together.)

Every now and then, I'll likely pop back up around here and among the pages of the paper, stirring up a bit of trouble and wedging my foot firmly in my mouth. In the meantime, so long, and thanks for all the laughs.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Video: CU Prof Peter McGraw tries his humor theory at the Squire, Denver's toughest room."

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

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Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


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