Deep in the heart of the University of Colorado's Leeds School of Business, among the suit-clad students and countless cups of espresso, is a whole bunch of HuRL.
HuRL, or the Humor Research Lab, is a project run by Peter McGraw that is working to figure out what makes things funny. I've known Pete and admired his work for years, but before reading his new book, "The Humor Code," I had no idea just what he's experienced in the name of figuring out what makes us laugh.
Co-written with journalist Joel Warner, "The Humor Code" details the duo's journey, from Pete performing at a particularly vicious stand-up comedy open mic night in Denver to Joel sitting through a "humorous" Japanese play for which there was no English translation ... and nobody was laughing. The book (fittingly) comes out April 1, but I scored an advanced copy thanks to Goodreads' First Reads program.
"The Humor Code" gives insight into the humor field — which is more complicated than you'd expect. It spends a lot of time discussing HuRL's theory, the Benign Violation Theory (BVT), but it also covers the history of humor research, explaining why they believe the BVT — humor arising from situations that are perhaps threatening but also OK, or "benign" — is the best model to date.
The BVT is fascinating, and I loved reading about Pete and Joel's attempts to match it to different forms of American comedy, from sitcoms to improv. But what really made me love the book were the chapters where humor was taken more seriously. The book examines issues like "laughtivism," groups who use humor to make social or political commentary or who take action and impact change. It talks about the Dutch cartoon scandal and how people can use humor to harm.
Joel and Pete's book definitely challenged my previously-held beliefs about humor, which made the subject all the more interesting. And amazingly enough, the most touching chapter of the book was all about clowns. It discussed their trip to the Amazon with a group led by the celebrated clown doctor Patch Adams to work with people living in a slum who had just been impacted by a devastating flood. I don't want to go into too much detail (you really need to read this book), but I was pretty much sobbing by the end of the chapter.
Who knew a book about humor would make me cry so much?
All seriousness aside, there was a lot of laughter to be had with this book: the story of the night Pete and Joel took a group of Madison Avenue advertising copywriters out to New York's fanciest bar and got them schwastyface was particularly embarrassing to read in public thanks to outbursts of poorly-stifled laughter.
Even though I don't typically love reading long-form journalism, "The Humor Code" was informative, entertaining, well-written and moving, and one you won't want to miss.
Jess Ryan is a community manager and CU grad. She writes about nerdy things once a week for the Colorado Daily. On Twitter: @JessicaLRyan.