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The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny Hardcover – April 1, 2014

3.8 out of 5 stars 85 customer reviews

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*Starred Review* A few years ago, there was an episode of Family Guy in which Peter Griffin and his cohorts set off on a quest to find the origin of the world’s dirty jokes. Here, McGraw, founder of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, teams up with journalist Warner to find, not just the source of some jokes, but the answer to the Big Question, What makes something funny? It’s a lively book, taking the researchers around the world, asking experts (other humor researchers, comedians, writers), conducting hands-on experiments (taking improv classes, performing stand-up), trying to nail down why things make us laugh. You’d think this would be a no-brainer—we laugh because something is funny—but it’s actually a very complicated and important subject. Humor research is a surprisingly highly charged field (when one researcher calls another’s theory “flawed and bullshit,” you know there’s some passion there), and the notions about what makes something funny are surprisingly varied, from McGraw’s own “benign violation” theory, which posits that humor occurs when something seems simultaneously threatening and safe, to Arthur Koestler’s idea that comedy results from the bisection of two mutually exclusive frames of reference. By asking us to explore the reasons why we laugh, the authors force us to look inside ourselves. It’s not often you can say a book about comedy can teach us some serious lessons. This one does—and entertains us in the process. --David Pitt


The Humor Code is basically an adventure story... [with] more to say about humor than a skeptic might think possible; The Humor Code is a lot [of] fun." (New York Times)

“Their book pulls off the neat literary trick of portraying a picaresque scientific enterprise that takes them around the world from Tanzania to Japan to Scandinavia.” (The Wall Street Journal)

"[T]he authors, in dissecting the nature of humor, shed fascinating light on what makes us laugh and why." (New York Post)

"Peter McGraw, an irrepressible psychology prof, and Joel Warner, his straight-man scribe, deliver entertaining answers to nagging questions like: Do unhappy people make better comedians? Are some things too horrible to laugh at? And how do you win The New Yorker cartoon contest? … McGraw lays out a convincing theory about how humor works, and why it’s an essential survival mechanism. (Mother Jones)

“[I]n The Humor Code, psychologist Peter McGraw and journalist Joel Warner stalk the essence of comedy from New York to Tokyo, putting McGraw’s “benign violation” theory to the test. The best jokes, they find, tread on our sense of propriety and upset our expectations, but in a harmless way— no one is actually hurt, and the audience isn’t too offended… [McGraw and Warner] illuminate the inner workings of humor with a verve that befits the subject. You’ll detect the mechanisms they describe in your favorite TV shows, movies, and stand-up routines almost as soon as you’ve finished reading.” (Psychology Today)

"What makes The Humor Code work is its wide-eyed approach to the subject.... It's part buddy-comedy road trip and part deftly-woven nonfiction, and it ultimately succeeds not on its format but its ideas and inviting tone." (Splitsider)

“If you've ever wondered why we laugh at what we do,you have to read this book about the DNA of humor. The odd-couple authors take us on a journey from the halls of science to the backstage of Los Angeles comedy clubs, and they show us why people can laugh amidst tensions in Palestine or a clown brigade in the Amazon. It's part Indiana Jones, part Tina Fey, and part Crime Scene Investigation, and it will make you smarter and happier.” (Chip Heath, author of Decisive, Switch, and Made to Stick)

“This book tickled my hippocampus. Joel Warner and Peter McGraw gave me paradigm-altering insights into humor, but also creativity, business, happiness, and, of course, flatulence.” (A.J. Jacobs, author of Drop Dead Healthy and The Year of Living Biblically)

“Engaging, wise, and of course funny, The Humor Code is a wonderful quest to discover who and what makes us laugh. Pete McGraw and Joel Warner are the best of company, and you'll be glad you took this trip with them.” (Susan Cain, author of Quiet)

The Humor Code is so good that I wish I wrote it. In fact, I’ve already started telling people I did. Luckily, Pete McGraw and Joel Warner are givers, so they won’t mind. They’ve given us a remarkable look at what makes us laugh, with the perfect blend of science, stories, satire, and sweater vests. This book has bestseller written all over it.” (Adam Grant, Wharton professor and bestselling author of Give and Take)

"Peter and Joel's globe-spanning search for what makes things funny is a wonderful page-turner that entertains as much as it informs." (Dan Ariely, author of The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty and Predictably Irrational)

"The Humor Code is a fun narrative of how a serious scientific theory is born, tested, and lived." (Ben Huh, CEO of The Cheezburger Network)

"The Humor Code is a rollicking tour de farce that blends academic insights and amusing anecdotes to answer some of the most serious (and frivolous) questions about humor, from what makes us laugh and why we laugh at all, to how the world’s cultures came to have completely different senses of humor." (Adam Alter, New York Times bestselling author of Drunk Tank Pink: And Other Unexpected Forces That Shape How We Think, Feel, and Behave; Assistant Professor of Marketing and Psychology)

"McGraw and Warner have done something quite remarkable and commendable. They’ve taken an intriguing question regarding the nature of humor and artfully mined answers from both the outcomes of scientific research and their own “world-wide comedy tour” experiences. I’ve never seen anything like it." (Robert Cialdini, bestselling author of Influence)

“I’ve always been fascinated by how humor works. I’m not willing to say that The Humor Code solves the puzzle once and for all, but it comes pretty close – and along the way it’s a hell of a ride.” (Jimmy Carr, Stand-up comedian, television host, actor, and co-author of Only Joking: What's So Funny About Making People Laugh?)

“Spanning five-continents, McGraw and Warner’s quest for a unified field theory of funny may be quixotic but, like Don Q and Sancho, their misadventures are irresistible and their enthusiasm is as infectious as the laughter they chronicle. Together they manage to find the science in comedy and the comedy in science, and share it all with the reader in this playful Baedeker of humor.” (Barnet Kellman; Emmy-Award winning director of Murphy Brown and Mad About You, professor of Cinema Arts at USC, co-director of Comedy@SCA)

""The Humor Code" was informative, entertaining, well-written and moving, and one you won't want to miss." (ColoradoDaily.com)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster; First Edition edition (April 1, 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451665415
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451665413
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.1 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (85 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #496,956 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By David Wineberg TOP 500 REVIEWER on April 1, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
As The Humor Code notes several times, humor can't stand to be examined. It falls apart and fails, like magic does when you explain a trick. That said, the authors fly off around the world, looking at comedy and humor and what makes them tick in different societies. From their Denver base, they get to visit with New York admen, Palestinian sketch satirists, Japanese standup students, and eventually take all they have learned and demonstrate it at the Just for Laughs festival.

Suffice it to say comedy gets to keep its secrets. There is no universal formula. Different jokes appeal to different folks. Different societies take offense at different things. American standup filth doesn't play as well in say, Yemen.

Many societies have moron jokes, poking insults at some minority or other country: Irish jokes in England, Okie jokes in the USA, Newfie jokes in Canada, Polish jokes in North America (in the sixties). That's about as universal as The Humor Code gets.

There is so much they miss, it is criminal. They visited Tanzania to learn about laughing disease, but never mention the infectiousness of laughter. That the top selling record in the USA was once just laughter. People listened and couldn't help laughing. They miss the printed word entirely: the setups of Robert Benchley, the knife twisting of Celia Rivenbark, the Dementia Praecox of SJ Perelman. And most strangely, they don't examine delivery and timing - how one person can make reading the telephone book funny and two people telling the same joke get entirely different reactions. How Peter Cook could keep people howling all night without ever telling a joke, and no one could remember a thing from the experience except their sides hurt all the next day and they had the time of their lives.
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Format: Kindle Edition
This book was a disappointment. The premise was quite intriguing in that that these two gentlemen would travel to different cultures in search of what made people laugh, and if there was a common element that held true through these cultures. The two, a professor of marketing and psychology and a journalist, propose that that common element is one of "benign violation." This is where there is something presented that is sensed to be unsettling, wrong or threatening, but then is found to be all right, or safe. It's a good theory, and is often easy to see in humor across cultures, but it does appear to have its flaws and contradictions. Still, it would be fascinating to delve into different cultures and see what makes people laugh.
Unfortunately, this book does not do this. The book is written more as a travelogue at best, or as a personal journal for the author. The relatively short book is full of travel details, personal asides, and stories not dealing with main subject. The journalist author seems to write this more as a human interest story where personal details of the people they meet, such as the nonessential elements of their background, or even what they are wearing, are described at length. There is also a lot of wordage devoted to the details of the trip. The entire first page on Japan is about their flight to Japan, without any reference to humor or comedy. There is a chapter devoted to the laughing disease outbreak many years ago in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). We read exhaustive details of their search for what caused the outbreak. We hear about their mode of transport, their guide and the rugged country into the middle of nowhere to find one of the last living people afflicted by that outbreak only to find out she's not talking.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
My son stole my first copy of this book and won't give it back, so I bought a second. The blend of rigorous theory and research, a dash of academic controversy and a delightful travel tale make this a delight to read. As an academic, I confess that I don't take anyone seriously who claims to have found or invented the one behavioral science theory that explains everything -- some of the Amazon reviewers are taking this whole humor thing too seriously. Most theories hold on some conditions and not others, and this is probably true of "Benign Violation Theory;" McGraw confesses as much. I don't see that as a weakness, rather it strikes me as intellectual honesty (a rare thing in mass market books). Indeed, as one of my favorite mentors taught me, all theories about social behavior are wrong because they oversimplify reality. So the more important questions include: Can you show it holds under at least some conditions? Is it well argued? Is it interesting? The Humor Code passes with flying colors on all counts.

Scholars will keep arguing about the conditions under which this and other perspectives hold, meanwhile, I suggest you enjoy this book and focus on the authors' journey, stories, and insights -- I enjoyed the blend immensely.
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Format: Hardcover
The Humor Code evolved from an idea to search for a single theory to explain humor by Peter McGraw, a University of Colorado professor who enlisted Joel Warner, a journalist, to accompany him on a global search and actually write the book. Professor McGraw (call me Pete) indicates that people have been trying to understand humor since Plato and Aristotle. The latest theory that has gained acceptance is called “incongruity,” namely that humor arises when there is a difference between what people expect to happen and what really happens. Professor Pete has his own theory which he called the “P + V Theory.” Humor occurs when you see a situation is a violation of a subjective moral principle (V), while at the same time realizing that the situation is normal (N). To test his theory the professor does a stand up routine at a local comedy club and bombs. He and Warner then set off on a global quest to talk to professionals and examine humor in an international perspective. Their journey takes them to such places as Tanzania to see if they can discover the cause of a laughter epidemic that took place some years ago (the best they can come up with is that it is caused by nervousness in a new situation), to Japan to examine cultural differences and to Scandinavia, Palestine and even the Amazon. In the end Professor Pete does another stand up routine in a Montreal club and does better. At the same time he really does not prove his theory. Humor, it seems, is not capable of being defined by a single idea—and timing is everything.

I found the book to be rather boring after expecting a lively account based on the topic. A big part of the problem, I think, is that it is written in the first person by the journalistic, Joel Warner. It could well have been better if the proponent of the theory and the expert on humor had written his own book. At the same time some people will find the places and discovery of humor that the pair find around the world to be interesting.
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