Peter McGraw | The Humor Code (Episode 618)

Peter McGraw (@petermcgraw) is an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder, founder of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL), and co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.

The Cheat Sheet:

  • Humor is ubiquitous — amusement and laughter are present in all cultures and many non-human mammals.
  • Humor: what is it good for?
  • What are the risks and rewards of humor?
  • Is there a connection between laughter and memory?
  • Can humor be taught?
  • And so much more…


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(Download Transcript Here)

What makes things funny? The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny co-author Peter McGraw has been in search of the answer to that question for the past nine years.

Peter joins us today to talk about his work at the Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL), which is dedicated to the scientific study of the antecedents and consequences of humor. Listen, learn, laugh, and enjoy!

More About This Show

Very smart people have been trying to figure out what makes things funny since togas were considered respectable apparel among polite company, so what makes Peter McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) and co-author of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny think he’s got what it takes to crack the mystery?

“The short answer is that I can run experiments,” says Peter. “Science explains a lot of very difficult things. You can create nuclear energy and you can explain black holes and you can figure out — at least we think — where the universe came from. And so I think we can figure out comedy.”

But this journey really began by happenstance. Before he was committed to pondering what makes things funny, Peter was studying what makes things wrong. During a talk in 2008 at Tulane University, something interesting happened.

“I was doing a project about how churches are using marketing tools — business tools — to grow their congregations,” Peter says. “I used an example of religious marketing, and my audience laughed. So they laughed at this thing that they thought was wrong. Some faculty member in the back of the room raised their hand and said, ‘You know, you just told us that moral violations make people angry. And yet we’re laughing. We’re expressing a positive emotion. Why?

“I was completely dumbfounded and unprepared for that question…at that point I’d been studying emotions for over ten years; I had never read a paper about humor. Of course I valued it in my personal life — even in my professional life I told lots of jokes as an instructor — and I couldn’t begin to answer that question.”

When he got home, he began to pursue an answer. Nine years later, he’s still at it.

Humor: Is It Just for Humans?

While Peter agrees that humor is a phenomenon that crosses all cultural boundaries, some might be surprised to discover that plenty of non-human mammals experience some form of humor as well.

“Mammals, especially non-human primates — chimps, bonobos, monkeys, gorillas, etc. — are often a good case study when trying to understand the human condition just because that’s where we came from,” says Peter. “So if it’s evident there, it’s probably evident here.

“First of all, I think emotions are present in mammals of all varieties. So your dog can be angry. Your dog can be scared. Your dog can be happy…the precursors for fear and anger and happiness, whether it be dogs or chimps or I think even rats — which we talk about in the book — are similar to the precursors that humans experience these same emotions.

“So then the question is, can animals actually find something funny? I actually don’t think animals find something funny in the way that we go, ‘Hey, that’s really hilarious!’ They don’t have the cognitions associated with that emotion…but I do think they can experience amusement. And the reason I believe that is that amusement really has its roots in play. Mammals of all varieties…engage in rough-and-tumble play with each other…in the case of dogs, with their owners and with other humans, and play has a particular set of precursors.

“So it’s something that is threatening. There is some risk of physical harm rooted in fighting. It’s kind of a developmental aspect for animals in terms of developing the ability to fight…it’s harmless. It’s safe in this way. So in the same way that kids laugh when they’re tickled, laugh when they play fight, they experience this positive emotion. It’s arousing.”

“I don’t think that dogs laugh, per se, but I do think that they’re experiencing positive emotion that is pretty close to amusement when they play fight — when you kind of roughhouse with them.”

Humor: What Is It Good For?

For countless years, emotions have been studied extensively by behavioral scientists, philosophers, linguists, and even computer scientists. Building on the foundation of their discoveries, Peter not only seeks an answer to what makes us laugh, but what the benefits of such laughter might be — and who receives these benefits.

It turns out that humor tends to benefit both sides in a humorous interaction — the recipient (the party who does the laughing) and the producer (the party who makes others laugh).

“Comedy is a great way to pass the time,” says Peter. “It’s a really enjoyable form of entertainment. It creates positive emotion, it creates arousal. The work on positive emotions is super clear — that is, it helps broaden our perspectives, so it helps us with things like problem-solving. When we’re in a negative mood, it’s actually hard to be creative; when we’re in a positive mood, it’s easy to be creative.

“It also builds our emotional and psychological life. That is, it helps buffer us against pain, stress, adversity — it helps us essentially be healthier people, not just physically, but also emotionally.”

Listen to this episode of The Art of Charm to learn more about why humor makes us healthier, what Peter has to say about the stereotype of the depressed comedian, why our sense of humor doesn’t always match that of our peers, how successfully navigating the risks of humor rewards us, why we laugh at awkward things, how laughter can be contagious, the connection between laughter and memory, and lots more.


If you enjoyed this session with Peter McGraw, let him know by clicking on the link below and sending him a quick shout out at Twitter:

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AJ Harbinger - author of 1050 posts on The Art of Charm

AJ Harbinger is one of the world’s top relationship development experts. His company, The Art of Charm, is a leading training facility for top performers that want to overcome social anxiety, develop social capital and build relationships of the highest quality. Raised by a single father, AJ felt a strong desire to learn about relationships and the elements that make them successful. However, this interest went largely untapped for many years. Following the path set out for him by his family, AJ studied biology in college and went on to pursue a Ph.D. in Cancer Biology at the University of Michigan. It was at this time that he began to feel immense pressure from the cancer lab he worked in and began to explore other outlets for expression. It was at this point that The Art of Charm Podcast was born.

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