The Humor Code

Everyone laughs, no one knows why.

Because when you think about it in the context of the functionality of humans, what service does laughter provide? Hell, what service does comedy provide? And why is humour even a thing? If you were coding humans, why would you build “funny” into the dev at all? Don’t get us wrong – we’re big fans of the funny – but really, why is it there?

This is essentially what Peter McGraw, a marketing and psychology professor at the Leeds School of Business and the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and Joel Warner, a writer (Slate, Esquire, WIRED), teamed up to figure out.

And since it is admittedly a broad question, McGraw and Warner take an appropriately broad – and even somewhat idiosyncratic – approach.

They start with the logical centers of funny. Like the offices of The New Yorker where they chat up Bob Mankoff (the man who managed the cartoons). And they head to Las Vegas and Los Angeles to discuss standup with high-priced practitioners like George Wallace and Louis CK.

But they also head out to Tanzania to investigate a famous outbreak of laughing sickness that occurred there in 1962. To try to understand how something we think of as being central to humour – laughing – could also be something as diametrically opposed to humour as a disease. Which you may think is a bit of a stretch – humour is humour, a disease is a disease. But laughter is where, in this case, that Venn diagram overlapped.

What does that say about it – and humour and comedy?

And then they flip that script completely upside down by heading to the country whose sense of humour overlaps with nobody else’s – Japan. They visit the comedy capital Osaka, to investigate how something we like to think of as being a more or less international currency (once translated of course) can be utterly un-funny to gaijin, whatever country they call home.

And then they go to a place that should be ground zero for “un-funny”, but somehow still generates comedy. In the Palestinian West Bank they try to understand how amidst all the chaos not only are there things to laugh at, but that laughter, comedy and humour are vital to the survival of the people there. Why? How is there even energy for funny, let alone content?

In short, they sort of take apart comedy, humour, laughter and funny and observe them under conditions where they exist inside and outside of the norm of what we – or they, McGraw and Warner – think is normally, “funny”. To see where things overlap, to see where things don’t. To try to understand why we have this ability at all and what we can learn from it.

And what they find is actually kind of fascinating.

They find that laughter, comedy and humour is this weird tribal experience in which the participants are basically telling each other “everything is okay here”. Where they are signaling that “this is a safe space, you are among friends”.

But because they’re not saying it directly, because they’re saying it by virtue of the jokes they’re telling – symbols and tropes and assumptions – it resonates in a way that just saying it wouldn’t. Because comedy taps into the foundational beliefs of the tribe, which only other members of the tribe can access.

Which is fascinating because it explains so many things. Like how people can laugh at things that others find horrifying – be they later generations or even just other segments of the population. Pick your inappropriate or risqué or political joke of choice. Think of the feeling among the group when it elicited laughter. Think of the feeling when it did not. Why? Because a line had been crossed. A line that said “one of us is the outsider here – is it you or is it me?”

And the importance to advertisers of this insight is exceptional. Because being able to quickly connect with people is vital to this craft. We have 30 second tv spots, 5 second pre roll, infinitesimal banner ads on our phones, billboards that we zoom past at 80 miles an hour. Advertisers need to be as efficient as possible when disseminating their message and if comedy and humour permit us to connect with our public quickly – say “hey, you and me, we’re in the same tribe (even though you’re a human and I’m a can of motor oil)” – then it’s a godsend. And indeed, as McGraw and Warner write:

In 2008, U.S. advertisers spent somewhere between $20 and $60 billion on humourous marketing. By that time, more than three-quarters of all Super Bowl ads were designed to be funny.

Which makes sense, right?

But now consider this fact that Richard Shotton (with the help of Kantar) pointed out: In the past 20 years, the percentage of ads using humour has decreased from 53% to 34%. Why? Why if humour is such a useful tool for connecting with people? Has it suddenly lost its power? Or is it because so many more “tribes” are seeing the ads, and therefore they often “dis-connect” more often than they “connect”? But doesn’t that just mean that we need a more diverse media plan and creative that uses different kinds of humour with different groups?

And if that sounds disingenuous, is it disingenuous to tell your 5-year-old a different kind of joke than you tell your best friends? Of course not – and that doesn’t make them or you false. It just means that you have a robust sense of humour. That you engage with many people. That you, as the fella says, “contain multitudes”.

Either way, it seems like too useful a tool for marketers to forgo just because it’s too hard. A tool that could be the difference between your brand living or dying.

Because what the actor Edmund Kean said on his deathbed is still true – “Dying is easy; comedy is hard.”


The Humor Code by Peter McGraw & Joel Warner was published by Simon & Schuster  on 04/28/2015 – order it from Amazon here, or from Barnes & Noble here, or pick it up at your local bookseller (find one here).

Please be advised that The Agency Review is an Amazon Associate and as such earns a commission from qualifying purchases

You May Also Want to Read:

Loser Goes First by Dan Kennedy
Instinct by Rebecca Heiss, PhD