A Code for Humor


By Lisa Autz

Dr. Peter McGraw at The Comedy Nest in Montreal, Canada. Photo courtesy of The Humor Code.

Why we laugh and find certain things funny is pretty unusual if you think about it. Often we find ourselves cackling for no known reason, continuing into an uncontrollable laughing fit while giving those around us a look of concern.

Laughing, and humor in general, has baffled scientists for centuries due to its seemingly irrelevant meaning to survival and its pervasiveness throughout cultures and ages. Psychologist Peter McGraw, and his team of researchers at the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at the University of Colorado Boulder, were no exception. In fact, they took the challenge in understanding humor head on.

As a result of their rigorous studies, McGraw’s team of funny investigators created a serious theory to what is “humorous,” in addition to devising a “humor algorithm” to identify which of America’s 50 largest cities were the funniest.

McGraw, with the help of journalist Joel Warner and collaborator Caleb Warren, began testing the “Benign Violation Theory”, which explains humor as what arises when something acceptable or safe occurs (i.e., benign) simultaneously when something unsettling or threatening happens (i.e., a violation).

They found that all different forms of humor fit the model–puns, sarcasm, even tickling. The team eventually gained the confidence to take their experimentation on the road in a global expedition to explore what makes matters funny.

When McGraw and researchers sat down to create a list of cities specifically in America, they wanted to ensure that unlike more subjective scientific studies in the past, their list of funniest locales would be “the most comprehensive analysis of humorous cities” to date.

“I think what makes our research different is that it’s not based on opinions,” McGraw tells BTR. “It is nearly all data-driven with a much greater scope and objective than other types of lists you will find.”

To determine the cities in America as funny or not, factors such as the number of comedy clubs per square mile, number of famous comedians born in the city (divided by population), and the ratings of the city’s comedic audience by traveling comedians were taken into account.

The team also characterized the humor of each city with surveys by residents describing the crux of their town’s guttural chuckles.

“It is striking how different people describe each city’s humor,” says McGraw in awe. “You wouldn’t get cities mixed up and when you think about it, their descriptions make sense.”

McGraw illustrates his point in recalling that Los Angeles’ humor surrounded shallowness and entertainment jokes, while New York was all about having fast paced, combative jokes.

The rankings were somewhat surprising but the reasoning behind them seemed to make sense.

Here are the top five:

1. Chicago, IL did not raise the researchers’ brows. The location’s most popular improv school and theater, The Second City, is recognized worldwide. Comedic legends like Bill Murray, Tina Fey, Joan Rivers, and Stephen Colbert all started off in the city putting it on the map as a comedy hot spot. Chicago is the renowned improv capital.

2. Boston, MA also has funny notoriety. Bostonians are most likely to attend a live comedy show and have a plethora of venues to choose from such as Improv Asylum and ImprovBoston. Famous acts include Jay Leno, Louis C.K., and Conan O’Brien. Brains and booze are the themes that Bostonians are prone to cackling about because of the renowned colleges and universities as well as many Irish pubs around town.

3. Atlanta, GA was a more unexpected name to appear on the list. However, the southern city is the base for many comedy flicks like the Tyler Perry movies and Smokey and the Bandit. Jokes are coined as predominately race-focused due to the continuous tensions.

4. Washington, DC is where political satire and cynical humor run rapid. Many dramatic and often humorous television shows are set in the White House–even House of Cards has its moments of political hilarity.

5. Portland, OR is described as quirky, absurd, and just plain weird. The city now harbors a reputation on a national level thanks to Fred Armisen’s Portlandia, a sketch comedy show that is dedicated to poking fun at the funkiness of the northwestern city.

The co-founder of the comedy club Laugh Boston and Improv Asylum, Chet Harding, spoke with BTR on his reaction to being in the top five and Boston’s legacy in comedy.

“It wasn’t a surprise so much for me. Boston has been quietly at comedy for years,” reasons Harding. “It is part of this trend where people are starting to realize that you don’t have to move to New York or Los Angeles to make it and you can make it right here in Boston.”

Harding attests to the growing recognition of Boston noting that Improv Asylum, a comedy theater featuring improvisation and sketch comedy since 1998, had record-breaking attendance in the past three years.

“We’ve recently had to add on a Monday night showing–making us open seven days of the week with three shows a night,” remarks Harding. “We have been breaking records year after year.”

Though the list definitely helps out comedy venues like Improv Asylum, claiming that the list is based on a foolproof algorithm for hilarity might be a long shot.

“We didn’t get it totally right, but right enough,” admits McGraw. “Maybe if we had to publish it in a peer review journal and had more time and resources.”

Jennifer Hughes, assistant professor of English at Avertt University and secretary/treasurer of the American Humor Studies Association, confirms that humor research is complex. She adds that difficulties in understanding cultural subtleties are usually an issue.

“Some of the obstacles are understanding the context of the situation,” says Hughes. “You end up learning the entire history of a city or a country just in order to understand one piece of humor.”

Hughes informs BTR that researchers must keep in mind collusive and subversive humor, which means finding the distinction between mainstream gags and comedy that undercuts the status quo.

Yet, the joy throughout all these complexities lies in the undeniably revealing insights understanding humor can bring to literature, social interactions, history, and a variety of other disciplines.

With projects like this, McGraw proposes that the aim is to create a public discourse on humor and its importance in our lives.

“There are always these lists on the top happiest cities or the top healthiest cities,” says McGraw. “We want to inform people that when considering where they want to live, it’s reasonable for those to value comedy as a factor.”