What’s So Funny?

Analyze anything to death, and it ceases to be fun. Paying no heed to that warning, Professor Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner traveled the world in search of The Humor Code: A Global search for What Makes Things Funny. Armed with the professor’s “benign violation theory,” and a healthy dose of self-deprecating humor, the two embark on a trip across five continents. Like so many jokes, however, their journey begins in a bar. A failed attempt at stand-up experimentation by McGraw provides the impetus to explore the boundaries of comedy. With Warner serving more as confidante than straight man, they begin their examination with domestic brands of humor.

In Los Angeles, the pair meet comedians, comedy club owners, talent scouts, and improv coaches. While trying to determine what makes someone funny, they cover interesting ground relative to comedians’ personalities. Though no more prone to neurosis or depression than others, Warner cites anthropologist Gil Greengross’ research indicating that comedians are “more introverted and disagreeable than others.” This dichotomy between who the comedians are, and what they project on stage, stands more poignant in light of Robin Williams’ recent passing.

The pressure to be funny, and the work involved, is scrutinized in New York. Employees of The New Yorker and The Onion discuss producing enough ideas to sift through for that one gem, or the perils of being too far removed from your home turf, and material. It is on that note that the duo export their research overseas.

Tanzania and Japan start the foreign festivities. A laughing epidemic called omuneepo in Africa reveals the importance of humor not only in letting groups know everything is alright, but in allowing those “in on” the joke to identify with the group itself. Examining the culture shock of comedy in Japan, Warner demonstrates the importance of context in humor, and how simple solutions are best.

In the second half of their research abroad, the book finds its pace and heart. A stopover in Scandinavia includes a review of the international incident caused by Danish cartoons depicting the founder of Islam. The cloistered life of the artists involved, and the levels of security at the publications responsible, testify to the dangers of taking comedy too far. While in the Middle East, McGraw and Warner find humor where they least expected. The right approach to a touchy subject, Warner concludes, can render both the joke, and the tragedy it skewers, benign.

The punchline of the book will take the authors from South America to Montreal. Accompanied by Patch Adams’ clown troupe in an isolated and poverty-stricken town along the Amazon, Warner describes how comedy can be an escape from the suffering of the real world – for the sufferers and comedian alike. McGraw applies what he has learned to a much improved reception of his stand-up, on the intimidating stage of the Montreal Just for Laughs comedy festival, no less.

The Humor Code does not begin as an easy read. Warner takes the reader from present to past frequently; he sets up his scene with the care of a seasoned comedian, only to lose momentum by citing past research, stories, or events in the middle. The book remains strong through the authors’ charming lack of pretense, and the candor with which they share their learning experiences. While there is no clearly agreed-upon formula for comedy, its value in life is healthily reaffirmed in this engrossing book.

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