Key takeaways

How humor works is a serious study for CU Boulder's Peter McGraw.

As director of the Humor Research Lab, McGraw is exploring what makes a good joke, and what falls flat.

His team have developed a theory that explains the importance of cultural and individual context on whether a joke lands or not.

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There’s a lot of power in a good joke. If you tell the right joke in a wedding toast, you could make a lot of friends. Tell that same joke at a funeral, however, and you’re likely to lose some.

Where the line is between funny and inappropriate is a serious study for Peter McGraw, and we explore that and more in this episode of the Brainwaves podcast.

When McGraw isn’t teaching MBA students, he’s exploring what makes good fodder for a joke (as well as what’s in poor taste) as director of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at CU Boulder.

The lab has pioneered a theory to explain the science of humor:

BRAINWAVES’ PAUL BEIQUE: “Is there a universal secret to what’s funny and what’s off limits? Where’s the line?”

McGRAW: “There is something universal about humor. What’s interesting is the thing that makes it universal also makes it completely individual and cultural […] We arrived at this idea that humor arises from things that are wrong, yet okay. From things that are threatening, yet safe. From things that don’t make sense, yet make sense. And we call this the Benign Violation Theory.”

BEIQUE: “Do you think people can learn to be funny?”

McGRAW: “I do believe that people can learn to be funny. This is a controversial idea. You know who likes to say people can’t learn to be funny? Funny people […] But frankly, they should be the ones who argue that you can get funnier because they once weren’t as funny as they are today. It takes like 10 good years of practice to get good at comedy.”

An edgy joke starting with a rabbi, priest and atheist walking into a bar, for example, may work among friends who see it as ultimately benign. However, a church group is less likely to appreciate the humor if they feel threatened.

The theory works for McGraw as a general framework, but it also shows how subjective humor is. Whether a joke lands can depend on the context, audience and even the joke-teller’s gender.

In this episode, comedian Nancy Norton and PhD student Jessi Rivin also joined Brainwaves to discuss the unique challenges funny women face. Rivin broke down her research showing humor in the office can help men, but often hurts women.

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