"The Humor Code"

What IS Funny?

During a recent vacation, I said something funny to a TSA agent at the St. Louis airport. I thought it was funny and everyone I have related the story to thinks it was funny but the agent was not amused. What IS funny? A professor of marketing and psychology and a journalist teamed up to try to answer that question.

There are many theories about humor and many organized groups doing formal research into the subject. For example, Peter McGraw (the professor of this book's writing duo) is the director of HuRL, the Humor Research Lab. There is an International Society for Humor Studies. There are professional journals dedicated to discussing humor theory. McGraw has his own favorite theory but traveled the globe with an open mind to experience funny in cultures other than the American culture with which he is most familiar.

The first three chapters look at humor in the United States. Stand-up comedy, improvisation and “New Yorker”magazine comics are all explored. Then the authors fly to Tanzania to interview witnesses of the 1962 outbreak of omuneepo, seemingly baseless and uncontrollable laughter.

In Japan, they feel completely in the dark about what the Japanese people enjoy at a comedy club. They meet with Scandinavian cartoonists who caused an international uproar in 2005 with their cartoon treatments of the Islamist prophet Mohammad. That visit segues to a week in Palestine. Can Palestinians living behind walls that don't protect them find anything laughable?

Their globe-hopping ends in Peru where they accompany Dr. Hunter "Patch" Adams and his medical clowns who bring humor and medicine to people living without sanitation or adequate food. 

Warner tells the story with just the right balance of facts and, yes, humor. I now find myself analyzing every chuckle I hear. Most are not engendered by hearing something humorous. Most are self-deprecating or what anthropologist believe is an evolved behavior that indicates, "We are all friends here. No one is in danger."

One parting piece of advice: When asked by airport security to remove your coat, then your jacket, then your scarf, don't quip, "I usually have music when I'm doing this." Your friends and family will think you are a great wit; the TSA will ask you to step aside for a thorough patdown.