Published: July 1, 2015

Stop me if you’ve heard this one. Three guys walk into a bar….  

Humor and laughter are universal. But just what is humor? And what, exactly, makes us laugh?

Peter McGraw, a psychologist by training and now professor of marketing at the Leeds School of Business, has traveled the world on a far-reaching quest for the secret underlying humor. He’s so serious about dissecting comedy that he founded a laboratory where he studies what makes things funny and the implications of humor for business.

Considered an expert in the interdisciplinary fields of emotion and behavioral economics, he has become a thought leader in establishing the study of humor as a serious research endeavor (ironic as that may sound).

“It’s an age-old question—one that people way smarter than me have tried to answer—What makes things funny?” he says. “Plato and Aristotle contemplated the meaning of comedy, but we have something that they didn't. We can run experiments and answer questions that philosophers can’t answer.”

McGraw founded the Humor Research Lab, or HuRL, an experiential laboratory at the Leeds School focused on the study of all things humorous. With his Humor Research Team of undergraduate and graduate students (known as HuRT), McGraw conducts a variety of experiments.

The researchers use online panels, both national and international, to examine differences in perception of what is funny by culture or location. They also bring people into the lab and tell them jokes or show a movie to get their feedback.

“To study this thing that is so complex and vast, a laboratory is necessary, but it’s not sufficient,” he says. “Oftentimes, my experiences out on the road spur questions we answer in the lab.”

Telling a joke is all about timing, particularly so with jokes about tragedies. McGraw's recently co-authored study on Hurricane Sandy found that jokes weren’t funny when people were in the midst of dealing with the damage. After some time had passed, however, those jokes became funny. When more time passed, they became not funny again, but boring and irrelevant.

“No one tells Michael Jackson jokes anymore,” he points out.

His broad search for the secret behind humor resulted in the book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, which he co-wrote with Joel Warner, a Denver writer.

“A scientist studying comedy may be amusing, but it’s easy to make the case for why it’s important in business,” says McGraw. “People like funny brands. They pay attention to funny advertisements. At the lab, we’re doing some work on the ways that brands can use humor as a marketing tactic.”

McGraw recently had a paper about using humor in public service announcements accepted for publication in the Journal of Marketing Behavior. Although a funny PSA may benefit a social marketer by grabbing people’s attention, the downside is that it might not be taken seriously and people could tend to see the problem it is addressing as not being a real problem.

One of the interesting things about McGraw’s work is that he’s ventured outside the laboratory to try standup comedy. And how did that go? “Not well,” he cracks.

Not one to give up so easily, he is trying again.

A tall, lanky professor wearing a sweater vest walks into a comedy club…