The Business of Laughter

LaughterThe study of humor is serious business. Dr. Peter McGraw, an Associate Professor of Marketing and Psychology at Leeds School of Business at the University of Colorado Boulder, is also the director of a humor laboratory. According to his university webpage, this laboratory is “dedicated to the experimental study of humor, its antecedents and consequences.” At the Humor Research Lab (HuRL), McGraw and his team “conduct state-of-the-art experiments” to find out what makes things funny. The research, according to the webpage, is done “with a focus on consumer behavior and public policy” in order to discover the “implications for marketing and management.” He has been widely published on topics that include humor in journals about marketing, consumer research, and management science as well as in the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

Most recently, McGraw and a Denver-based journalist co-wrote a series of articles in Slate magazine. The series is an adaptation from a book authored by McGraw that will arrive in bookstores on April Fool’s Day titled The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. There are three articles in the series thus far, but the teaser at the end of third indicates there will be at least one more. One thing is for sure: McGraw certainly knows how to get his book promoted and time its release.

The first of the three Slate articles looks at the discord in the field of humor studies and proffers “a bold new attempt at a unified theory of comedy.” In the world of theory proferring, one first finds holes in existing theories. And McGraw does this, showing how the various organizations such as the International Society for Humor Studies and other scholars that have previously written about humor, including Aristotle, Plato, and Freud, are unable to account for every type of humor and “can’t explain why some things are not funny.” Thus McGraw offers a unified theory, which, as he sees it, “does better than all the other humor theories in explaining the wide world of comedy.” It also, according to the Slate series, “has another benefit going for it,” which is “delineating why some things aren’t funny.” There is a sweet spot between benign and offensive upon which the joke must land in order to be funny, according to McGraw’s “benign violation theory.” The article ends with a lighthearted description of the international exploration undertaken by McGraw and company in the name of “explaining humor once and for all.”

The next article in the series explores timing in humor: When is it too early and too late to joke about something? The HuRL analysis on the matter looked at participants’ humor ratings on three tweets about Hurricane Sandy, and the results backed up McGraw’s benign violation theory. There is a sweet spot here as well. Lastly, that is until another article is published, the third article deconstructs laugher: “Researchers are discovering chuckles…are far more complicated than anyone realized.” Here McGraw highlights a study by a neuroscientist and psychology professor that posits “laughter is inherently social…at its core it’s a form of communication.” It is not, in other words, “just a byproduct of finding something funny.” McGraw then references a study that pinpoints the evolutionary development of laughter at 2-4 million years ago, before the existence of language, and explains it as a “signal that things at the moment were OK,” and that it would be a good time to socialize, and an opportunity to learn. But the study that follows this notion of laughter signaling a time to socialize and learn examines a type of laughter that emerged hundreds of thousands of years later. This type of laughter has been shown to be used as a “way to manipulate others.” And this is how the Slate series ends. McGraw notes that the study shows that this manipulative laugher is sometimes used “for mutually beneficial purposes, sometimes for more devious reasons.” Marketing and advertising, perhaps? The possibilities here are endless.

If the Slate articles are any indication, the book will at the very least be an interesting examination of humor. One hopes, however, that Dr. McGraw’s marketing and business background were not the driving force behind his upcoming book. One hopes that he does not take humor, one of the few remaining un-premeditated, innocent, and enjoyable aspects of life, and dissect it for the purposes of making a how-to manual that can be used in less-than-innocent ways. Of course, the complexity of humor means there is little chance of that happening. But, if in fact the attempt is being made, and without reading the entire book one cannot be sure, it says volumes about the world today.

Opinion by Donna Westlund

HuRL Benign Violation Theory
Colorado University Leeds Business School

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