I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book through the NetGalley service.
The Humor Code, written by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner, traces the pair's global journey to investigate McGraw's "Benign Violation" theory of humor. McGraw is a professor at the University of Colorado Boulder and the founder of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL). Warner is a professional journalist. Neither he nor McGraw had any significant performance experience, but they did have a taste for adventure that took them to some complex and potentially dangerous locales, such as remote Tanzania, Palestine, and Los Angeles. Neither author shied away from jumping into an unheated Peruvian military cargo plane with a load of clowns.
No, really—a planeload of clowns. More on that later.
Not Off to a Promising Start
When we first meet our heroes the Professor, sporting his signature sweater vest, is about to do a few minutes at a stand-up open mic night. The bad news is that the crowd is known to be tough and they're expecting anatomy jokes. You probably won't be surprised that the guy with the Ph. D. bombed in that environment. This expected and very forgivable failure is brought into sharper relief when you realize that the goal of the exercise is to help prepare McGraw for an appearance at the Just for Laughs comedy festival in Montreal.
Comedy is hard. Social interactions with comedians are exceptionally hard. A few pages after the introduction, the authors related how they took the wrong approach to their backstage meeting with Louis C. K. The comedian probably expected academic or thoughtful questions, but McGraw went straight for the anatomy joke, which probably conjured up bad fan interactions and led to an early exit. They were better than most amateurs in that they seemed to understand they'd crossed a line and it was time to leave, but what they didn't get at that point in the narrative was the vulnerability required to step on stage and do Louis C. K.'s material. You have to be in the proper emotional place to get there as a performer; two guys interviewing a hungry comedian before a show and going all awkward fanboy will kill the mood immediately.
Theory of the Benign Violation
The given circumstances of the book are the authors' attempts to investigate McGraw's theory of the Benign Violation. I first learned about the theory from McGraw's guest lecture for Dan Ariely's online course A Beginner's Guide to Irrational Behavior, presented through Coursera. The basic idea is that humor requires a certain level of discomfort. In this construct, a statement or concept can be:
McGraw argues that, once the listener is uncentered but not overly offended, the comedian can use exaggeration or another technique to twist the reality and generate laughter. It's an eminently reasonable take on comedy in the English-speaking world, but the question is how well it would hold up internationally. Part of the answer could come from determining why people laugh in the first place.
Why Do We Laugh?
To start, the authors sampled dishes from the U.S. comedy scene, including stand-up performances and an improvisational comedy workshop with an Upright Citizens Brigade teacher in L.A. I've been a professional improviser since 1993 (and, like McGraw, failed horribly at stand-up) and agree with the authors that stand-up and improv are two different worlds. Stand-up comedians go on stage by themselves and (mostly) deliver prepared material, but improvisers usually perform as part of a group, don't have to carry the load themselves, and ego-involve the audience by using their suggestions.
As the authors note, improv classes often attract serial workshoppers who might have no hope of performing due to job or family demands or a debilitating lack of funny, but who enjoy the social experience:
It's not at all uncommon for participants in an improv workshop to go out for drinks afterward. I've certainly benefitted from the social aspects of improv and hope to do so for many more years.
From Boulder, L.A., and New York they went on to destinations including Japan, Scandinavia, Tanzania, and Peru. That last destination cast McGraw and Warner as clowns on a team led by Hunter "Patch" Adams (made famous by the movie starring Robin Williams). The team's mission is to bring relief to a village in the Peruvian Amazon. McGraw started as a clown but transitioned to the role of civilian guide and overseer, as befitting his experience as an impartial observer of humor. Warner, the journalist, dug into his role as a clown...he is told and personally discovers that, when you put on the nose, you have permission to "go insane" in the sense that you become someone else.
That sentiment, of losing oneself in your clown character, echoes the thoughts of Keith Johnstone. Johnstone founded the Loose Moose Theatre in Calgary and invented Theatre Sports (the inspiration for ComedySportz, the organization I've performed with since 1996). In his classic book Impro, he described mask work as an opportunity to lose yourself in another entity. The pull can be so strong that everyone must agree to take their masks off when directed to do so. It's a powerful technique and should not be attempted by beginners.
The Book as a Book
I enjoyed the progressive narrative, which chronicled the authors' experiences and worked McGraw's theories into the story's flow. This approach stands in contrast to other recent participatory journalism titles I've reviewed, which alternate between the author's experiences and history or theory. For example, Tower of Babel alternates between chapters about extreme language learners of the present day and the history of an Italian priest who was famous for his linguistic skills. Similarly, Moonwalking with Einstein alternates between the author's preparation for and participation in the U.S. national memory competition and the history and practice of memorization. There's nothing wrong with either framework, but I personally enjoyed a break from the strict alternating chapter approach.
I also appreciated the authors' journey as human beings. Their work as part of the clown mission to the Amazon village came at the end of the arc that started in the developed world, continued through developing Africa, and ended in a subsistence-level community. Though they never explicitly stated that they understood at a visceral level where they'd gone wrong with Louis C. K., I bet they knew.
At the end of The Humor Code, McGraw goes on stage in Montreal and doesn't bomb. I'll leave the specifics of his solution as a surprise for when you read the book, but as a nerd who does comedy I appreciated how he solved the problem of presenting at a comedy festival without being an experienced comedian. Highly recommended.
Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media; he has also created more than 20 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.