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.
It was in some ways a funny development. We needed a place to answer the question, what made people laugh? In places that you wouldn’t expect, in regions of conflict. My co-author Pete was actually traveling to Israel for some conference, visited the West Bank, and e-mailed me about the Palestinian satire program we write about, Watan ala Watar. But it was also a place with a clear divide. If you think about jokes, you’re always laughing with people or at people. On one hand, by sharing the joke with someone, we see the world in the same way. At the same time, jokes are at the expense of something. There’s a target in the joke. I’m separating myself from you. Both can by very powerful. We see humor’s potential to bring people together, but also how it can be divisive.
One of the most striking passages of that chapter was when you spoke to a Holocaust survivor who spoke about the jokes they made up in Auschwitz.
The problem with both Israel and Palestine is when you’re there, you see the negative view of the other one. When you’re in the West Bank, the only interactions you have with Israelis are settlers or soldiers. So we wanted to head off the negative perspective, balance it out, and it made sense to speak to the Holocaust survivor. What we weren’t expecting is that that kind of humor is very similar to the kind we encountered in the West Bank. It’s a case where both sides claim status as the underdog. I think that might be controversial.
You also spend some time examining jokes as a subversive tool, whether humor can incite real social change. What did you come away thinking?
The question is whether humor is a thermometer — does it illustrate the social movements already going on — or is it a thermostat, can it increase the heat? I don’t think we have the full answer. It’s hard, in these real world examples, to see what variables matter and which ones don’t.
You’re a journalist, which is a profession known for a particularly dark brand of humor. Was there a newsroom influence on any of your work?
Researchers have found that you see more twisted humor among folks like paramedics, who have to deal with pretty rough stuff. We get some of that in the newsroom too. It’s a way of people to kind of cope with this stuff [and] build jokes around it. A lot of reporters, we like to push the envelope. Among me and my fellow writers, my jokes can get a bit dark.
Are there topics in humor you wish that you could have gotten to?
We didn’t look as much as we could have at, say, internet-based humor. Studies have said the most influential Twitter user is a comedian in Buenos Aires. Why is that? There’s also the question of humor in the workplace. There are some examples of companies that have been transformed by humor in their organization. I wish I had asked questions about humor in Aruba [laughs].
This interview has been edited for style and length.