Monday, 17 February 2014

Advance Book Review: The Humor Code by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner

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Occasionally, while mired in the middle of some writing some turgid paper on the economic ramifications Treaty of Maastricht or an equally-engaging area of the dismal science I would get distracted and get creative with my queries in my school's academic journal database. I would look for strange articles about football (turns out there are quite a lot) in hopes of avoiding my mind from completely going numb. I quickly reached the conclusion was that despite the best efforts of econ professors everywhere to dissuade me of the notion, academics sometimes actually studied interesting topics. Certain fields have generated a considerable amount of volume, and it turns out that the field of humor studies is no different. In The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, a writer published in Wired, The Boston Globe, and Grantland teams up with a marketing and psychology professor to identify the scientific, sociological, and cultural factors behind what we find humorous. Equal parts travelogue and pop-science examination, The Humor Code manages to be an amusing and informative read on what makes us laugh. 

The book grew out of a series of articles Warner wrote about McGraw including a feature in Wired and the book reads like an extended magazine article. Thankfully, there is enough substantive material for the book to succeed with the extended format. While McGraw and Warner are both listed as authors, it appears that the journalist Warner is the one behind the keyboard chronicling the pair's exploits.

Warner and McGraw traverse the globe to codify the elusive concept of humor. They visit locales such as Tanzania (to research the great 1962 Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic, Japan (to examine those ridiculous game shows where many comedians act as contestant), and Scandinavia (investigating the fallout from the Muhammad comics). Closer to home, the authors also attempt to determine how to win the New Yorker caption contest and consult with some strange characters including Lisette St. Claire, the "laughter queen of Los Angeles." Their journey culminates in McGraw attempting to apply his learnings by performing at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal.

The Humor Code also contains a bit of intellectual heft and reviews several items from the surprisingly abundant volume of humor research. McGraw is at the vanguard of the field as the direct of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) and is a proponent of the "benign violation" hypothesis of humor, which strikes me as intriguing yet not entirely airtight (though my economics background puts me firmly within a glass house in that regard). The book covers studies about whether Democrats are funnier than Republicans and even conducts some original research, such as analyzing New Yorker caption contest winners. These segments were the highlights of the book for me and helped The Humor Code become more than a collection of fascinating and odd anecdotes about their travels.

I found The Humor Code to be a very enjoyable and fun read. It probably wont make you any funnier (which is not the book's intent in the first place) but it will yield some fascinating insights and strange anecdotes about global humor. The book has a light feel and despite a few weak sections and disappointments (such as a rather wasted interview opportunity with Louis C.K.) it is one of my favorite books of 2014 thus far and highly recommended for anyone interested in psychology or what makes things funny. 

In Sum
The Humor Code is an original, engaging, and oftentimes illuminating pop psychology book about what makes us laugh and why. Recommended for those seeking a light science read with some observations on global culture and, of course, humor. 


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