The University of Colorado’s Peter McGraw thinks he’s got the “best job ever,” and for those who like to laugh, it might be hard to argue he’s wrong.
McGraw, 47, is an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the CU Leeds School of Business and is director of the Humor Research Lab— HuRL. There, day in and day out, he is all about the grueling work of exploring why we laugh, and the many ways in which humor functions — and also malfunctions — in society.
There are no rubber chickens or whoopee cushions at the lab and — there is likely a joke to be made here — there actually really is no lab.
Yes, McGraw and his colleagues do conduct research in laboratories as appropriate. But much of the work occurs online. And the project enlists research partners located as far afield as Arizona, Maine and Australia, and is leveraging a burgeoning relationship with the nationally known Upright Citizens Brigade, an improvisational and sketch comedy group based in New York and Los Angeles.
“I think I have the best job ever, and part of the reason is that, I have like a whole new a set of friends as a result of this,” said McGraw.
“I have friends who are improvisors, and who are standup comedians,” he said, citing as one example Denver native T. J. Miller, an actor and comedian who starred on TV’s “Silicon Valley.”
“He emailed me one day out of the blue and said, ‘I can’t believe there is a professor in Colorado studying humor. Can we meet?”‘ McGraw recalled. They could and they did.
McGraw’s national profile was boosted earlier this year through his inclusion as an expert in a multi-part CNN series ” The History of Comedy.” His work was cited recently in a New York Times opinion piece suggesting President Trump has no sense of humor.
“I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but this is like a career-changing decision I made,” McGraw said of his choice to make serious work of laughter. “And, one in which people actually, I don’t think, were terribly supportive. If I had asked, ‘Should I do this?’ I think I would have gotten no’s.
“I approached a really good friend of mine to work on this, and he was like, no way. I was giving a professional talk. and having a meeting with one of the faculty members afterward and he said, ‘I am really impressed with the work you’re doing, because humor is a career killer.”‘
McGraw, a Boulder resident, made his mark on the science of the funny bone with his 2014 book “The Humor Code,” co-authored by Denver-based writer Joel Warner.
That book advanced a theory of comedy McGraw developed with former University of Colorado doctoral student Caleb Warren (now an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Arizona) called the benign violation theory: humor only occurs when something seems wrong or threatening, but simultaneously is acceptable. An example offered in the book’s opening chapter is someone falling down the stairs. If they are hurt, it’s not funny. If they’re fine, laughter may well ensue.
“I think we have a good model,” McGraw said. “Is it perfect? No. But I believe it’s better than everyone else’s. If it’s a horse race, I think we’re winning.”
Erin Percival Carter managed HuRL for three years as a doctoral student at CU and is now an assistant professor of marketing in the Maine Business School at the University of Maine.
“It’s hard for me to be completely objective about it because I’ve used it and I’ve seen it work and I’ve seen it work better than other theories that we’ve pitted it up against,” she said of the benign violation theory. “I don’t think perfect theories exist. I would like to see it improved in the future, but I haven’t come across anything that works better.”
McGraw said the right standard to apply to his humor code is not who is “winning” the battle of the theories.
“The reason you want a theory is, a theory should help you answer questions,” he said. “It should help you solve problems. It’s not whether people agree with it per se but rather, does it help you with new insights? Does it help you with existing problems? If you’ve claimed to crack the humor code, so what?”
Current and future work at the lab, McGraw said, is focused on understanding the “value of humor” in the world, its benefits and its costs.
“What we’re doing right now is a lot of theoretical work,” he said. “We’re actually making predictions about how humor helps people accomplish the goals in their life.”
He said professional goals, social goals, utilitarian goals, the search for pleasure and the avoidance of pain can all be aided — or hampered — through the effective or ineffective use of humor. Continuing research is aimed at probing the ways humor can help or hurt those goals.
Warren credits McGraw for having given HuRL a profile beyond what is enjoyed by many of their academic peers.
At its onset, “Pete sat down with me and said, ‘I don’t want this to just be an academic thing where we publish papers that 20 others professors read,'” said Warren, who was at CU from 2005 to 2010.
“He said, ‘I think this has the potential to reach many other people’s eyes.’ It’s about academic research. But it’s also about communicating with the press, business, industry, comedians.
“It was very much an intentional decision to try to make it about much more than just academic research.”
McGraw doesn’t come into work in oversized shoes with a red nose and tooting a bicycle horn. Even his trademark sweater vests, in which he often used to appear — and sometimes used as a point of self-deprecation — have been “retired,” he said.
His faculty office betrays little to suggest it doesn’t belong to a professor specializing in something more buttoned-down; say, product strategy.
“That’s a loaded question,” Carter said of McGraw’s humor quotient. “As far as academics go, he’s funny. For academia, he is top 5 percent.”
Warren, McGraw’s partner now at Arizona, said, “Pete describes himself as moderately humorous. I would say he’s funnier than average, but he’s not the funniest person I’ve ever met.”
The New York Times column assessing Trump the comedian did not actually solicit McGraw’s opinion as to whether the president has a sense of humor. But McGraw said in an interview that he believes Trump does.
“He has friends, he has loved ones, he is close with his family,” he said, citing relationships in which the presidential funny bone might more in evidence.
“Might it be harder for him to be funny these days than it was six months ago? I’m sure it is because he has one of the most difficult jobs in the world. He’s dealing with all the really bad stuff. Now, is Trump less funny than Barack Obama? You could probably find evidence for that. But I don’t think that’s evidence that he lacks” a sense of humor.
Asked whether Trump’s presidency is helping or hurting comedy in America, McGraw said “Yes” and then laughed.
He added: “I think there are some people who feel really pessimistic about the world right now, and it’s hard to laugh when you feel pessimistic, depending on your political orientation.”
But McGraw also said, “You could say there is greater need (to laugh). From the standpoint of coping, you could say there is a greater need, in terms of the nature of satire, in terms of speaking truth to power.”
What many perceive as the missteps of the Trump presidency, he said, supply the required “violation” half of the benign violation needed in comedy — and ample fodder for, as McGraw said, “The Seth Meyers, the Samantha Bees and the John Olivers of the world.
“If you had a well-behaved president, you have less material.”
He believes every culture harbors humor, and that in the age of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and a populace armed with smartphones, the laughs are easier than ever to come by.
“Comedy rises when you have a way to distribute it,” McGraw said. “So, my guess is North Korea is probably the place where it is at most of its deficit, because you don’t have a way to distribute it.
“But that doesn’t mean I think the North Koreans are not funny. They just don’t have the opportunity to consume it, to be funny, in the same way that other types of cultures do.”
McGraw is wary of a syndrome he sees in some older scientists, whom he sees as growing so enamored of a pet theory they won’t allow themselves to be swayed by new discoveries that might challenge them.
“That’s actually part of the reason I’m tempted to pull away from it,” he said of his research. “I think most of the big work to be done, I’ve done, and it’s going to be other people who are going to have those breakthroughs.
“If I’m not careful, I’m going to turn into one of those senior people who just loves his theory.”