By Published: Sept. 1, 2014

Illustrated map of US

To identify the funniest U.S. city, CU-Boulder researchers developed their own humor algorithm.

Skiers swarm the slopes of Colorado, art lovers crowd the Louvre in Paris, Elvis Presley fans pay homage at Graceland in Memphis, Tenn. Where do comedians flock and cluster? According to CU-Boulder’s Humor Research Laboratory — that’s right: HuRL — it’s Chicago, which researchers have identified as the funniest city in the United States.

But what makes the Second City — aka the City with Big Shoulders, the Windy City and, you’d think, the City of Too Many Damned Nicknames — funniest? Not least, its residents, who have a pronounced “need for levity,” according to HuRL researchers, who released their analysis of humorous cities last spring. Chicagoans attend a lot of comedy shows, value funny friends, appreciate April Fool’s Day and use Comedy Central as a news source.

More important, researchers say, is that Chicago is home to legendary laugh factories. The Second City, the sketch comedy and improv club that has produced dozens of America’s most famous comics, including John Belushi, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Stephen Colbert, is there, as is the iO (formerly Improv-Olympic) which counts Tina Fey and Mike Myers among its illustrious alumni.

“I think a lot of people aren’t surprised that Chicago is No. 1,” says Peter McGraw, the associate professor of marketing and psychology at CU-Boulder’s Leeds School of Business who founded HuRL in 2009.

McGraw got the idea for the funniest cities project while traveling the world with Denver writer Joel Warner to research their 2014 book, The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, published by Simon & Schuster on — wait for it — April Fool’s Day.

“We were talking about… these annual lists, the happiest cities in America, the healthiest,” says McGraw. “And we decided, ‘We can do this for the funniest cities.’”

Humor could use serious attention.

The team selected and weighted seven attributes that define a funny city: The opinions of professional comedians; number of comedy clubs; visits to, a “social humor” aggregator that receives more than 375 million monthly page views; the tendency of local residents to search online for humor-related words such as “funny” and “comedy” over a 10-year period, as determined via Google Trends; publicly recognized funny tweeters; the number of comedy radio stations; and the number of native famous comedians.

Researchers collected data for the 50 largest American cities, then equalized results for objective variables such as population and land area, to arrive at initial rankings. Then they sent surveys to residents in the top 10 cities, asking questions intended to indicate a “preference for humor,” such as favorite movie genre, TV shows, visits to comedy clubs and even desired traits in romantic partners.

The data were ultimately fed into a “humor” algorithm developed by Caleb Warren (PhDBus’10), now an assistant professor of marketing at Texas A&M, and Adrian Ward, senior research associate in marketing at the Leeds School of Business. Chicago came out on top.

Rounding out the top 10 funniest cities were Boston, Atlanta, Washington, Portland, New York, Los Angeles, Denver, San Francisco and Seattle. Pulling up the rear at No. 50 was Forth Worth, Texas.

“The people of Fort Worth were not happy with HuRL,” McGraw says. “But being 50 is not necessarily bad. I guarantee the people of Fort Worth that there are plenty of other places less funny.”

Chicago’s reputation among aspiring comedians helps reinforce its position within the pantheon of funny places.

“Comedy here is like an art and a science,” says Jessie Stegner (Thtr ’07), a member of the professional ensemble at ComedySportz, a chain of clubs with 25 locations in the U.S. and Europe. “[Chicago] is the kind of place where people sit around at a bar at 4 a.m. talking about what makes “The Office” so funny and why “Parks and Recreation” is such a great show.”

Stegner, 28, honed her comic skills performing in CU-Boulder’s annual Fringe Festival and knew exactly where she was headed after graduation. “I knew if I was going to do comedy, it had to be Chicago,” she says.

Yvette Rebik (Jour’06), 30, who made her way to Chicago after successful stints as a DJ for Denver’s MIX 100 radio station and is now on the ComedySportz team, says the city strikes a perfect comedic balance of “Midwestern hospitality with an edge.”

HuRL’s funniest-cities survey got a lot of attention in the press, but McGraw stresses that it’s not representative of the lab’s most serious academic goals. “We want to take our findings and publish in the world’s top business and psychology journals,” he says. “And we have the added goal, unusual for an academic lab, of wanting to facilitate a public discourse about humor, its value and its risks.”

Humor, he says, could use some serious attention.

Where does [humor] rank in the list of psychological experiences? Seemingly near the top.

“We’re humor nerds,” he says. “But it’s striking that it’s not being studied more often. There is a lot of work on regret, disappointment, pride and embarrassment … At first blush humor seems not serious as a research topic. But where does it rank in the list of psychological experiences? Seemingly near the top.”

Warren and McGraw have developed a “general theory of humor” they call “benign violation theory,” which proposes that humor occurs “when and only” there is something transgressive about a situation yet the situation is fundamentally benign.

“For example, play fighting and tickling, which produce laughter in humans and other primates, are benign violations because they are physically threatening but harmless attacks,” McGraw says.

The theory holds that humor can fail when the violation does not seem benign or because it’s so benign that there is no violation. For example, a kid’s knock-knock joke may be too tame, while Lenny Bruce’s transgressive humor could induce as much anger as laughter in his audiences.

In two recent scholarly papers McGraw and Warren have delved into the way time and distance influence humorous responses to tragedy.

“Time creates a comedic sweet spot that occurs when the psychological distance from a tragedy is large enough to buffer people from threat (creating benign violation) but not so large that the event becomes a purely benign, nonthreatening situation,” they wrote in Social Psychological and Personality Science of their longitudinal survey of reactions to funny tweets about Hurricane Sandy.

HuRL research has shown that the greater the tragedy, the more time must pass before it becomes funny, and vice versa.

“If you were hit by a car yesterday, it’s not funny, but it’s possible that five years from now you’ll tell a funny story about it,” he says.

It takes much longer for people to find humor in historical traumas such as the Holocaust or the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. And what once was funny doesn’t always stay that way.

“Values change,” McGraw says. “Some of Eddie Murphy’s standup from the ‘80s is terribly homophobic, just patently offensive, and seems so bigoted.”

The HuRL team, which includes graduate and undergraduate students at CU-Boulder and Adam Barsky, an associate professor of management and marketing at the University of Melbourne in Australia, wants the lab “to be seen as a source of information, not just for scholars but also for media and the everyday person on the street,” McGraw says.

HuRL is serious, but McGraw doesn’t take it, or himself, too seriously.

“We don’t actually have a dedicated lab space. Or much of a budget,” he says. “We’re hoping Chris Rock or Sarah Silverman will donate money to keep us going.”

Illustration by Josh Cochran