| News |

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

Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

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.

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.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


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


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