The Schmooze

The Science of Laughter

Courtesy of Joel Warner

Denver journalist Joel Warner and his co-author Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, trekked across the world in search of the answer to a seemingly simple question: What makes people laugh?

Their book, “The Humor Code,” is at once a lighthearted collection of adventures in the world of humor and a serious-minded inquiry into the mysterious mechanisms of what makes things funny across cultural barriers. Across nine chapters, the duo bothers Louis C.K. in a green room, hangs out with scientists who tickle rats in Tanzania and flies into the Amazon rainforest on a cargo plane full of clowns.

Perhaps most daring of all, Warner. 35, and McGraw spent some time in Israel and the Palestinian territories and talking to Holocaust survivors, trying to determine the way that jokes have the power to simultaneously unite and divide people. His favorite post-intifada Palestinian joke describes several heads of state meeting with God and making requests for their people. To each, God says, “Not in your lifetime.” Then Yasser Arafat, the former Palestinian leader, asks for his people’s freedom and God says, “Not in my lifetime.” The Forward’s Margaret Eby caught up with Warner by phone.

Margaret Eby: Since humor is such an incredibly subjective thing, did you go into this project with certain metrics? Did you have some sort of more precise laugh-o-meter, for example?

Joel Warner: Laughter is actually a really imperfect predictor of humor. We didn’t go around tracking every example of humor we could track or think of. We thought, “We’re not going to be able to cover everything.” So we decided to organize the book around the most interesting questions. Is humor really the best medicine? Why do we laugh? In many ways, the locations are window dressing. We didn’t have to go to Palestine, we could have gone anywhere.

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The Science of Laughter

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