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The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny [Hardcover]

Peter McGraw , Joel Warner
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Product details

  • Hardcover: 239 pages
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1451665415
  • ISBN-13: 978-1451665413
  • Product Dimensions: 23.1 x 16 x 2.5 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 308,845 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worldwide comedy romp 1 April 2014
By David Wineberg TOP 1000 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
As The Humor Code notes several times, humor can’t stand to be examined. It falls apart and fails, like magic does when you explain a trick. That said, the authors fly off around the world, looking at comedy and humor and what makes them tick in different societies. From their Denver base, they get to visit with New York admen, Palestinian sketch satirists, Japanese standup students, and eventually take all they have learned and demonstrate it at the Just for Laughs festival.

Suffice it to say comedy gets to keep its secrets. There is no universal formula. Different jokes appeal to different folks. Different societies take offense at different things. American standup filth doesn’t play as well in say, Yemen.

Many societies have moron jokes, poking insults at some minority or other country: Irish jokes in England, Okie jokes in the USA, Newfie jokes in Canada, Polish jokes in North America (in the sixties). That’s about as universal as The Humor Code gets.
There is so much they miss, it is criminal. They visited Tanzania to learn about laughing disease, but never mention the infectiousness of laughter. That the top selling record in the USA was once just laughter. People listened and couldn’t help laughing. They miss the printed word entirely: the setups of Robert Benchley, the knife twisting of Celia Rivenbark, the Dementia Praecox of SJ Perelman. And most strangely, they don’t examine delivery and timing – how one person can make reading the telephone book funny and two people telling the same joke get entirely different reactions. How Peter Cook could keep people howling all night without ever telling a joke, and no one could remember a thing from the experience except their sides hurt all the next day and they had the time of their lives.
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  42 reviews
22 of 25 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worldwide comedy romp 1 April 2014
By David Wineberg - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
As The Humor Code notes several times, humor can't stand to be examined. It falls apart and fails, like magic does when you explain a trick. That said, the authors fly off around the world, looking at comedy and humor and what makes them tick in different societies. From their Denver base, they get to visit with New York admen, Palestinian sketch satirists, Japanese standup students, and eventually take all they have learned and demonstrate it at the Just for Laughs festival.

Suffice it to say comedy gets to keep its secrets. There is no universal formula. Different jokes appeal to different folks. Different societies take offense at different things. American standup filth doesn't play as well in say, Yemen.

Many societies have moron jokes, poking insults at some minority or other country: Irish jokes in England, Okie jokes in the USA, Newfie jokes in Canada, Polish jokes in North America (in the sixties). That's about as universal as The Humor Code gets.

There is so much they miss, it is criminal. They visited Tanzania to learn about laughing disease, but never mention the infectiousness of laughter. That the top selling record in the USA was once just laughter. People listened and couldn't help laughing. They miss the printed word entirely: the setups of Robert Benchley, the knife twisting of Celia Rivenbark, the Dementia Praecox of SJ Perelman. And most strangely, they don't examine delivery and timing - how one person can make reading the telephone book funny and two people telling the same joke get entirely different reactions. How Peter Cook could keep people howling all night without ever telling a joke, and no one could remember a thing from the experience except their sides hurt all the next day and they had the time of their lives. (They do mention Henny Youngman's signature line in passing.) But then, none of that would fit in their theory anyway.

What I found most interesting was their time with the cartoon editor of the New Yorker. They put together a list of the approaches that make for a winning caption: finalists' entries didn't waste words on obvious visual elements, did not use excessive punctuation like question marks and exclamation points, and at 8.7 words, were a word shorter than the rest. Also, they did double duty. Being the funniest isn't enough; they have to make a point. Oh.

We are left with a travelogue, filled with bad drivers, missed connections, too much alcohol and not much new data. The stories are backfilled with references to academics and studies that follow references out onto tangents.

If you know going in they weren't going to discover the holy grail, it makes the Humor Code much more readable and enjoyable. It's just a romp in comedy around the world.

David Wineberg
13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Very little here of substance 28 April 2014
By Steven Rose - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
This book was a disappointment. The premise was quite intriguing in that that these two gentlemen would travel to different cultures in search of what made people laugh, and if there was a common element that held true through these cultures. The two, a professor of marketing and psychology and a journalist, propose that that common element is one of "benign violation." This is where there is something presented that is sensed to be unsettling, wrong or threatening, but then is found to be all right, or safe. It's a good theory, and is often easy to see in humor across cultures, but it does appear to have its flaws and contradictions. Still, it would be fascinating to delve into different cultures and see what makes people laugh.
Unfortunately, this book does not do this. The book is written more as a travelogue at best, or as a personal journal for the author. The relatively short book is full of travel details, personal asides, and stories not dealing with main subject. The journalist author seems to write this more as a human interest story where personal details of the people they meet, such as the nonessential elements of their background, or even what they are wearing, are described at length. There is also a lot of wordage devoted to the details of the trip. The entire first page on Japan is about their flight to Japan, without any reference to humor or comedy. There is a chapter devoted to the laughing disease outbreak many years ago in Tanganyika (now Tanzania). We read exhaustive details of their search for what caused the outbreak. We hear about their mode of transport, their guide and the rugged country into the middle of nowhere to find one of the last living people afflicted by that outbreak only to find out she's not talking. Even if she would have talked to them, I doubt she would have contributed anything as to what makes people laugh.
So I considered this book a waste of time as far as finding out about what people find funny and why, or if there is really anything that is universal across different cultures. If you want that, then there are volumes of other works are far more intriguing and elucidating.
11 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fun, Evidence-based, and Well-Written 11 April 2014
By Robert I. Sutton - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
My son stole my first copy of this book and won't give it back, so I bought a second. The blend of rigorous theory and research, a dash of academic controversy and a delightful travel tale make this a delight to read. As an academic, I confess that I don't take anyone seriously who claims to have found or invented the one behavioral science theory that explains everything -- some of the Amazon reviewers are taking this whole humor thing too seriously. Most theories hold on some conditions and not others, and this is probably true of "Benign Violation Theory;" McGraw confesses as much. I don't see that as a weakness, rather it strikes me as intellectual honesty (a rare thing in mass market books). Indeed, as one of my favorite mentors taught me, all theories about social behavior are wrong because they oversimplify reality. So the more important questions include: Can you show it holds under at least some conditions? Is it well argued? Is it interesting? The Humor Code passes with flying colors on all counts.

Scholars will keep arguing about the conditions under which this and other perspectives hold, meanwhile, I suggest you enjoy this book and focus on the authors' journey, stories, and insights -- I enjoyed the blend immensely.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Education and Great Storytelling 1 April 2014
By Kevin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I love learning about research related to humor. But it can be horribly dull. McGraw and Warner manage to tell a story of international travel that makes The Humor Code read more like a good fiction novel. As Warner describes the mayhem the duo faces, he pulses out research findings... a spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.

I tore through it in a weekend, which is a first for me as far as non-fiction goes. I learned a lot about comedy, but also laughed outloud no fewer than 2 dozen times.

Get a copy and plan to get sucked in. :)
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great casual read 24 May 2014
By Kelly - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Peter McGraw and Joel Warner created an enjoyable read from their world travels and investigation into humor from across cultures. Peter's Benign-Violation theory on humor, hypothesizing that for humor to occur an event/joke must be both a violation yet benign enough to not be considered offensive, is considered from the perspective of varying adventures. Each chapter becomes a short-story and journal of their travels that reflects back to the goal of their work. The book begins and ends with Peter's own attempt to employ his theory on the stand-up comedy stage.

Enjoyable read for the casual reader with enough science to learn about humor and it's role in our lives.
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