A Venn diagram halfway through The Humor Code (Simon & Schuster, 212 pages, $26) merges a circle labeled “Time” and another labeled “$1,272.96 Bar Tab” with the label “Funny.” This diagram summarizes the authors’ experience with ad executives in New York City, but also the method Joel Warner and Peter McGraw use as they travel the world developing a scientific formula for humor.
Warner is a journalist and the voice of the book. McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado, where he directs the Humor Research Lab. The men got together when Warner sought a break from the “gangland shootings and fire bombings” he writes about for Denver alternative weekly Westword. A literary agent in New York suggested the trip around the globe to research the universality of humor.
While the premise sounds like a good excuse for an all-expenses-paid trip to Africa and Japan, the book becomes a bromance between two men who guide each other through Louis C.K.’s dressing room and a safari in Tanzania. Trips to Los Angeles, New York, Scandinavia, Palestine, the Amazon and Montreal frame questions like “Who is funny?” “Why do we laugh?” and “Is laughter the best medicine?” Ultimately, the answers lead to an eight-minute comedy set in which McGraw performs on the main stage of the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal. This manufactured conflict can feel hokey at times, but it does offer a satisfying conclusion to the bro-venture.
Sure, you could flip to the last chapter and read about the festival and the authors’ definitive findings without reading the rest of the book. But you’d miss Warner’s enjoyable prose and musings: He describes how to improve your life through a better understanding of comedy and why laughter appears to be a universal trait among mammals.
At journey’s end, and after his daunting set at Just for Laughs, McGraw lends some advice, which you probably figured was coming: “I understand humor better now. Most people could stand to laugh more. Life gets serious. Our world is full of mortgages and careers and retirement funds and horrible headlines on the nightly news. And when you live in a world that’s really serious, it’s hard to be playful about things.”
The Humor Code
doesn’t offer a solution to all of the ailments of being human, but it
does lend some perspective. And, it turns out, according to science,
things are much funnier when you’re drunk.
GO: Peter McGraw and Joel Warner speak at Powell’s City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651, on Thursday, May 8. 7:30 pm. Free.