Published: July 15, 2019

PAUL: Welcome to Brainwaves, a new podcast about big ideas, produced at the University of Colorado Boulder. Today... [LAUGHTER] what is funny? How is it that you can tell a joke that kills in one setting, but that same joke is totally inappropriate somewhere else? And do female comics ...

COMEDIAN NANCY NORTON: I'm a Pi-sexual I have sex every 3.1415 years.

PAUL: … seem to get a bad rap onstage and in the office. We'll take a serious look at all that funny today on Brainwaves.

PAUL: And now a man with a serious resume on what's funny: Peter McGraw. He runs the Humor Research Lab, acronym HURL. He co-wrote the book The Humor Code: Exploring Humor Worldwide. He teaches behavioral economics at CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business. And if that's not enough, he has his own podcast called I'm Not Joking, where he talks about what helps funny people be successful. Peter McGraw, welcome to Brainwaves.

PETER MCGRAW: Thanks for having me.

PAUL: Is there a universal secret to what's funny and what's off-limits? Where's the line?

PETER: There is something universal about humor. What's interesting is the thing that makes it universal also makes it completely individual and cultural. So the work that we've been doing in HURL, and this is with a former graduate student here, Caleb Warren, who's now an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, is we arrived at this idea that humor arises from things that are wrong yet OK, from things that are threatening yet safe, from things that don't make sense yet make sense. And we call this a benign violation. And when you look at comedy, all forms of comedy, when there's people laughing, you can typically find something wrong yet OK, a benign violation there. However, that also suggested that almost nothing is universally funny because almost no one group of people can agree on what's wrong and what's OK, and so that depends on where you're at, who you are, you know, what mood you're in, and so comedy is a really slippery thing we're funny people are trying to find the sweet spot between benign and violation, and that sweet spot depends on the audience.

PAUL: So the audience gets to decide whether it's funny or not?

PETER: The audience is the great decider, yes it is. 

PAUL: Do you think people can learn to be funny?

PETER: I do believe that people can learn to be funny. This is a controversial idea, so you know who likes to say that people can't learn to be funny? Funny people. Especially ones who make lots and lots of money being funny. They like to think that they have this special magical power, the special sauce. 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. So there's evidence from that. There's also evidence that people can learn very complex skills. They can learn to play piano, they can become better public speakers, they can learn to be good scientists, and so that process I think is similar. That is, you learn the ideas, you learn the techniques that go behind being a good pianist, a good public speaker, a good scientist, and then you practice and you get feedback on it, and that's what a lot of comics do. They've got good instincts, they work at it, they get feedback. As we said, the audience is the great decider so they know whether they're being funny or not, they know what's working and what's not, and then they learn to hone and revise their techniques.

PAUL: So, should I try to be funny at work?

PETER:  Uh, well, it depends if you're good at comedy. So you know I teach business school students, I teach MBAs, and you know, by day, and by night I'm decoding comedy. And so the natural thing would be to put those two things together and to go out into the world and say, “Be funny, use humor for better leadership.” And I find myself reluctant to give that message to the world. And the reason is that, just like the piano, just like public speaking, your ability to be funny is a skill, and if you take people who aren't very good—I don't tell people who are bad at piano to go play piano in the subway—and so in the same way I don't want people who aren't good at  comedy to be try to be funny at work, because the downsides can be much greater than the upsides. So it really depends on what your skill level is to begin with. What I've started to do, and I think is really promising, is to think about what you can learn from comedians that may help you in your professional life. That is that they have a really tough job, and they've learned practices and perspectives that help them be successful. So what I'm working on now is, how do you translate the techniques of comedy, not the last but the underlying techniques, and use them in the business world, to take bigger chances, to be more creative, to stand out in a cluttered world. And so if you have me back later I can tell you a lot more about that. 

PAUL: Alright, we'll have to do that. One last question: Is it easier, do you think it'd be easier to teach a funny person to be a good business person or a good business person to be a good comedian?

PETER: My instinct is that it would be easier to teach a funny person to be a good business person, and the reason is twofold. One is, one thing we know about really funny people is they're wicked smart, so the best predictor of an ability to make a good comedian is actually intelligence, so they already have a leg up in that way. And then the other thing is that if the person is already using their comedy to be successful in life, those underlying techniques actually are really translatable. That means that person has a practice, that means that they're good listener, they're good at paying attention to the world, they have some confidence, they've got good communication skills, they're creative. And so give me a roomful of funny people and let's submit them to the MBA program and let's see what happens.


PAUL: Peter McGraw, thank you for joining us on Brainwaves. Peter McGraw teaches behavioral economics at CU Boulder, and you can hear his podcast, I'm Not Joking, wherever you get your podcasts. People of all stripes have the potential to be funny, but some people don't get the credit. Brainwaves’ Molly Phannenstiel tells us about some new thinking on why that might be. 

[COMEDY CLUB HOST]: Everyonegive a big round of applause for Nancy Norton!

MOLLY PHANNENSTIEL: The challenges of deciding whether to be funny in the workplace are understandable, but when it comes to being a comedian, there wouldn't appear to be a challenge except whether the audience thinks you're funny or not.

NANCY NORTON ON STAGE: Yes, I am one of the older comics. If you couldn’t tell, my name is Nancy. NANCY! They haven't made a Nancy since 1964.

MOLLY:  But that's not so, says stand-up comedian Nancy Norton, especially if you're a woman in comedy. 

NANCY: People will say this to me after shows: “You are really funny for a girl.” I think that is true that people don't expect women to be funny, but I also think being the funny one is sort of being in the position of power, so they don't expect women to be in the position of power.

MOLLY:  Norton has been performing stand-up comedy since the early ’90s, and she'll tell you that the world of comedy is tough for a woman to succeed in, not because women aren't funny, but because of preconceived societal ideas rooted in sexism and gender roles.

NANCY: I know I have to work a little harder. You know, I get up there and sell it! I have to, I have to use all of my skill sets. You know, this year I won a festival in September, Boston Comedy Festival. First woman to ever win it in the 19 years, and people ask me, like, OK, what is it? Why did it take 19 years for a woman to win that festival? It wasn't enough to just be funny. Here's the feedback I got from judges afterwards, was like, you know what you showed us? You showed us you can act, you can sing, you can write, you can perform, you do improv. I mean, I should look and see who's won it in the past, but I bet you they didn't have to sing and dance and do improv with the MIT guys on the front row. I'm just saying I had to work a little harder to win that contest.


JESSI RIVIN: I hope I can help make a change with my co-authors.

MOLLY: That's Jessi Rivin, a first-year PhD student in organizational behavior at CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business and a co-author of a study showing that men benefit and women are frowned upon when using humor at work.

JESSI: What we found was that when the men were funny, they were prescribed a higher status than when they were not funny because they were seen as more confident and sure of themselves, and then the women were rated as having lower status when they were humorous because they were seen as less committed and disruptive to the workplace.

MOLLY: Like Norton, Rivin attributes the findings to gender stereotypes.

JESSI: What we attributed it to is status, and so, because women are seen as maternal and we have outside responsibilities to the home and the family stereotypically, we can't be as committed at work. It's a double standard that I don't find surprising.

MOLLY: Columnist and American humorist Erma Bombeck wrote, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

NANCY NORTON ON STAGE: “Old and trying to date. Kids, kids! I'm not on your Match, I'm not on your Tinder. I'm on Timberrrrrr!” We know women are funny. We know women are smart. We know women are inventive. We know women are sometimes good drivers. I am not one of those. I am saying we have towe being male in the male-dominated world and the patriarchy—have to be willing to surrender some power. I think that's what it takes is really a desire for equality.


PAUL: Thanks for joining us on Brainwaves. I'm Paul Beique. Listen in next time when we talk about real-life science catching up with a mythological feat: reversing aging. Thanks to Andres Belton for creating our introduction. Dirk Martin and I produced today's show. Andrew Sorensen is our executive producer. See you next week on Brainwaves.