If you go
What: Funny or True?
When: at 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Gordan Gamm Theater in the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut St., Boulder
Who knew performing a comedy open mic set at Denver's notorious dive bar The Squire Lounge years ago would lead to a life-changing endeavor for a University of Colorado professor.
"First, 'perform' is a strong word to describe what I did," said Peter McGraw, laughing. "I think the word that usually gets used is 'bombed.' I bombed as a stand-up comedian."
That bomb turned into an expedition-turned-book, "The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny," a position leading CU's Humor Research Lab (HuRL) and his creation of a live-action game show that pits scientists against comedians in " Funny or True?" The fourth iteration of the show is scheduled to occur at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Dairy Arts Center's Gordan Gamm Theater.
McGraw acts as host ("I'm certainly much better suited to be entertaining as the host of the show," he said), and pits scientists Bill Farrand (Boulder's Space Science Institute) and CU's Stefanie Johnson against comedians Janae Burris (of The Cannabist Show) and Shane Mauss (who has appeared on "Conan").
McGraw, a "psychologist by training," said the show's seed was planted when his graduate school pals would gather Friday nights and play the bluffing board game Beyond Balderdash ("because we were nerds").
"Instead of trying to win by convincing people that I had the correct answer, I would instead try to make them laugh," McGraw said. So they modified the rules to award points for the right answer and the funniest answer.
That became the heart of the show, he said, where it's the audience that votes on who's the funniest and "truthiest" — that's exactly how "Funny or True?" works. Audience members vote on their smartphones while the scientists and comedians use their best bluffing skills.
Science does comedy
Farrand, a senior research scientist who focuses on planetary sciences at Space Science Institute, said that participating in "Funny or True?" offers him a challenging opportunity that's outside his line of work. He's not new to improvisation, however. He's involved in Toastmasters.
"Often, folks tell me they enjoy the impromptu speaking, and maybe it's gone to my head," Farrand said. "I think I'll try it out in a different venue."
Farrand, who was a participating scientist on NASA's Mars Exploration Rover mission, said that during his professional presentations he always tries to inject a bit of humor.
"Sometimes people laugh at my brain," so he may have a good mix of brains and laughs, he said.
It was the Apollo Program that piqued Farrand's interest in science when he was young.
"I'm as old as Methuselah," he said. (Far from it — he's a sprightly 55). "Back when the dinosaurs walked the earth, when I was a kid, I was very interested in those missions."
Comedy does science
Comedian Burris, who moved to Denver from Fresno, Calif., three years ago ("Fresno blows so hard, I had to get up out of there," she said) recently scored a gig as co-host of The Denver Post's "The Cannabist Show" and has appeared on a previous "Funny or True?" show.
"I like the audience. It's a smart, academic audience," Burris said. "They're really participating, they're checking out those jokes, they're checking out the facts."
She said her only job is to win over the audience.
"I'm probably not going to win with my answers because they don't have many facts," she said. "I just have a good time trying to make the audience laugh."
Probably won't be a stretch. Burris is a founding member of one of Denver's top female comedy groups, Pussy Bros.
Burris said she loves entertaining crowds — especially right now, she said, when the world could use more comedy.
"Sometimes it's hard for humanity to keep its spirits up," Burris said, "hell, it's hard for me to."
But she said that if we're going to live in this world, we might as well make the best of it.
"Comedy is a great escape to put any issues on hold — they'll be waiting for you in 90 minutes, so you can get back to them," Burris said. "In the meantime, just enjoy the show."
McGraw agreed that comedy has benefits — it's an escape from reality, a way to deal with tough subjects and can be used as a coping mechanism, he said. But more importantly, perhaps, it's a departure from clashing politics for a bit.
"It's a nice escape," McGraw said. "If people are looking to get away from the current political climate, this show is a great way. I can guarantee it."
He gave assurances that it would be a Trump-free event.