Storytellers: Business professor's journey to find the funny bone

Defining the undefinable: we follow one man's journey to put definitions on what we find funny.

It’s just before 2 p.m. and the students at CU Boulder are slowly populating classroom S125 in the basement of the Leeds School of Business.

“I wonder if anyone is going to be late,” Peter McGraw wonders aloud as he paces across the front of the classroom.

McGraw doesn’t show any angst about the prospect of students coming in after the start of his Masters MBA course, but he’s made it clear he expects punctuality.

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“I don’t have many pet peeves, but coming in late is definitely one of them,” he says as the clock inches closer to 2.

This is the first day of McGraw’s course, but it’s almost a disguise of sorts as McGraw’s passion for the last 10 years has revolved around something on the entirely opposite end of the academic spectrum: humor.

“We study way more trivial things than humor,” he says. “This is like a really important thing.”

Since 2010, McGraw has devoted much of his time and research into what makes things funny. An interesting topic choice for a calculated man that makes a living off analyzing things in a scientific manner.

It happened almost by accident when, during a lecture on behavioral psychology 10 years ago, Pete made an unintentional joke and a student asked why the class found it funny.

Pete didn’t know, but as an academic he made it his mission to find out.

“This is as human a phenomenon you can find,” he says.

Over the course of the next 10 years, the MBA professor, would travel more than 19,000 miles around the world visiting Pakistan, Denmark, comedy clubs, and improv classes, while conducting nearly 20 experiments along the way.

“It gets me out on my feet, it gets me out of my comfort zone,” McGraw says. “There was this one time where I got up during standup comedy at an open mic night and just bombed.”

What he found is there is no “secret sauce” to humor. There isn’t a formula of jokes or topics that we find funny. He says, instead, we’re all funny in our own way as humor depends on context, setting, and the audience.

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“Humor, at first blush, can kind of seem like a frivolous topic. You know, a light-hearted topic and it’s easy to dismiss it as a topic for serious science,” McGraw said.

“But when you think about how valuable humor is in the world; as a form of coping- helping people deal with pain, stress and adversity- this is something people pursue all the time in their lives, yet the thought that it would be relegated to this little niche topic… that always struck me as wrong.”

McGraw’s ten years of studies led him to write the book The Humor Code in 2014.

In it, he says what we find funny typically lies in the gray area between what we consider wrong, but acceptable.

McGraw says now his research is more focused on how humor is used is social situations and why it's important in society.