Laugh studies: Could Peter McGraw's "funny theory" power a controversial humor project?

CU's Peter McGraw, subject of our feature "The Nutty Professor," has come up with a new general theory of humor -- the "Benign Violation Theory" -- that scholars say could be a major step forward in the field. Maybe it's time for McGraw to team up with a group of Northwestern University researchers hoping to develop machine-generated humor programs using a $700,000 federal stimulus grant.

The NU project has drawn the ire of U.S. Senator John McCain and conservative commentators, who say it's a prime example of wasteful stimulus funding. As they put it, how does a joke machine help the U.S. economy?

Such criticisms miss the point of the endeavor, NU computer professor and project lead Kristian Hammond recently told the Chicago Sun-Times. The goal is to create artificial-intelligence computer programs that imitate the way people think in order to revolutionize the search-engine industry (as big a business as any these days, as evidenced by Google). The humor angle is just a way to get students interested -- plus it raises the stakes. As described in the Westword story on McGraw, while finding something funny is easy, understanding why we find something funny is really, really hard.

That's why McGraw's work on humor could come in handy for Hammond and his colleagues. After all, the Benign Violatoin Theory is attracting attention because of the elegant way it dissects humor into understandable parts. Maybe it's just the approach the NU project needs to create the ultimate joke-telling supercomputer.

Then again, a wisecrack-spouting robot doesn't sound that funny at all.

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Joel Warner is a former staff writer for Westword and International Business Times. He's also written for WIRED, Men's Journal, Men's Health, Bloomberg Businessweek, Popular Science, Slate, Grantland and many other publications. He's co-author of the 2014 book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster.
Contact: Joel Warner