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

3.42  ·  Rating details ·  818 ratings  ·  153 reviews
Part road-trip comedy and part social science experiment, a scientist and a journalist detail their epic quest to discover the secret behind what makes things funny.

Two guys. 19 experiments. Five continents. 91,000 miles. And a book that will forever change the way you think about humor.

Part road-trip comedy and part social science experiment, a scientist and a journalist
Hardcover, 239 pages
Published April 1st 2014 by Simon Schuster
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Angela Penrose I think that comes mainly from the idea that humor is based on shared references. If you don't share the references, you won't get the joke. In a way,…moreI think that comes mainly from the idea that humor is based on shared references. If you don't share the references, you won't get the joke. In a way, all jokes are "inside jokes;" it's just that some jokes bang off of universal human experiences, so everyone is a member of the in group. A trout wouldn't laugh at a slipping-on-a-banana-peel joke, because there's nothing in their own frame of reference to match it.(less)

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Dec 05, 2013 rated it really liked it
Thanks to GoodReads First Reads for a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest review.

The Humor Code is the journalistic account of a professor and a journalist traipsing about the world in search of what makes things funny. Their basic questions aim to identify the rules that make people, jokes, performances, situations, and cartoons funny. They also explore the capacity of humans to laugh and the conditions that allow for such a reaction.

Joel Warner, the journalist part of the duo, is
Steven Rose
Apr 06, 2014 rated it it was ok
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 r ...more
Matt Lieberman
Feb 17, 2014 rated it really liked it
Occasionally, while mired in the middle of some writing some turgid paper on the economic ramifications Treaty of Maastricht or an equally-engaging area of the dismal science I would get distracted and get creative with my queries in my school's academic journal database. I would look for strange articles about football (turns out there are quite a lot) in hopes of avoiding my mind from completely going numb. I quickly reached the conclusion was that despite the best efforts of econ professors e ...more
Michael Emond
Oct 11, 2015 rated it liked it
This review might be a tad rambling but so is the book so that is fair. I am very split in my mind about this book 2 stars or 3? Why doesn't GR allow 2.5 stars dammit! Okay I ended up giving it three because while the end result didn't match my expectations or what the authors set out to do it was a worthy attempt and their hearts were in the right place.

Pros: I like the main author (not sure why Peter McGraw is listed as first author here, the book is written in first person narrative from Joe
Dec 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
Many of my friends in the comedy scene have wondered why people who are self-proclaimed to be not all that funny would spend this much time, energy and insight into finding out what is humorous. The result is this book - the perfect example of "those who can't do, teach". And being taught is just as rewarding as doing in this instance. Pete and Joel do a great job of taking you to places and putting real life examples in front of you, while presenting many other studies and cases to back up thei ...more
This is a remarkably engaging, and of course humorous treatise on the universal and cultural aspects of humor. The authors have traveled to several continents in search of the answer to the question "What makes us laugh?" Their travels include New York, L.A., Japan, Scandanavia, Tanzania, Peru, and Montreal. Venues include everything from professional comedy clubs to emergency intervention in flood-ravaged Peru. The latter chapter is most poignant, with 100+ clowns, some from Patch Adams' Gesund ...more
Jan 02, 2014 rated it liked it
This rating/review is based on an ARC I got from netgalley.

This book was definitely interesting, but like a lot of “fun” non-fiction I think it got too caught up in a hypothesis. I find my favorite sciency non-fiction books are Mary Roach’s. She doesn’t try to prove a point, she just follows her interest. Plus she is actually funny. There were a lot of really interesting tangents, but they weren’t able to flesh them out because they were working towards a narrative. Basically since Jonah Lehrer,
Nooshin Warren
Dec 21, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Very few books are able to both teach me something and be interesting and enjoyable to read. But rarely I read a book that not only does so, but also leaves its mark on me. “The humor code” was one of those books.

After reading “The humor code”, I can tell the reason behind my smiles and my laughter. A little part of my brain looks for the benign and the violation part of everything that I find funny. And what amazes me is that the theory this book introduces never fails.

The book is very well wr
Dec 18, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: first-reads
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book :) Fascinating, scientific, and yes, witty! One section went on a bit long, but it is an interesting read about what makes the world laugh.
Nahom Tamerat
Apr 02, 2014 rated it liked it
It doesn't pull any punches or get any laughs and has little in the way of great revelations about humor but it is fun to read and not very long... so you might as well read it.
Cheryl Dietr
May 06, 2014 rated it it was ok
The only thing worse than not funny is boring. This book was a rarity for was a book I chose not to finish.
Peter Tillman
Sep 11, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: bios-memoirs, humor
Stephanie Snyder
Jul 01, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: psychology
A book on humor is a bit dry.
Dec 09, 2019 rated it liked it
I may come back to it another time, but I though I found the topic interesting the way the book was written didn't grab me. I got about halfway through before putting it down.
John Bacin
A bit unfocused, and not as entirely scientific as I had hoped, but it's an entertaining read with some great bits of analysis concerning comedy, humor, and laughter.
Jessica (Books: A true story)
The theory behind The Humor Code is that benign "moral violations" are funny.  The example that he gave that set the author off on his research was about a church giving away a hummer which made the class he was teaching laugh.  The example was supposed to cause disgust so one student asked why they were laughing instead.  He didn't know and now we have this book where you can fall asleep -- I  mean find out.  Because as interesting as the ideas and travel stories are, I've never read such a dry ...more
May 11, 2014 rated it liked it

I read this book, I believe, on the recommendation of Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary and Writing Excuses. No blame to him for his review; I can see why he likes it. It was an easy read, and entertaining enough, and the core idea is sort of interesting but ultimately disappointing.

The core idea is the "benign violation theory" of humor: things which are funny are at the intersection of things that are benign, and those that are violations of... uh... something? Expectations, mores, safety,
Caleb Ross
May 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
(click the image below to watch the video review)

video book review of The Humor Code


I’ve read a lot of comedy studies books. Well, three, but that’s a lot compared to most people, because most people aren’t sadists.

Luckily, this book isn’t like most humor studies books. This one is readable. It’s interesting. It actually contributes to an overall better understanding of, wait for it, what makes things funny (appropriate subtitles are all the rage right now).
Jun 13, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
A mildly entertaining tour through the humor business including the academic theories that try to dissect comedy to see what really makes it work. The twist on the theory of humor as researched by the academic co author Pete McGraw amounts to successful comedy relying on the idea of a benign violation of norms. Hmmm....I wasn't sold on this and the theory's strength isn't seriously tested but rather brought up very now and then somewhat incidentally to measure up against all the unusual comedic ...more
Jun 20, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: audiobook, nonfiction
Peter McGraw and Joel Warner decided to study what makes something funny. In Pete's words:
“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process.”

So there wasn't any laughter while listening to this audiobook, and often times it was slow going. However, humor has fascinated me because I love things that are funny, but most of what gets termed "humor" is just stupid to me.
I completely agree with what Joel said:
“Most experts today subscribe to some variations of the incongruity
Jul 11, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Hi so I've read a lot of other comedy books and they felt kind of biased one way or another to stand up. They talked about all the trials and tribulations of doing stand up. I absolutely LOVED this book because the two men (who are not professional comedians by the way) went to five continents and had a very objective point of view about what makes things funny. I would give this book 6 or 7 stars out of 5 if I could because I just thought it was so well researched and offered some very good poi ...more
Dec 07, 2013 rated it it was amazing
After reading the description, I was concerned that this would be a buddy-travel book full of shenanigans and fart jokes, but it's not. This is a rigorous examination of humor from political, cultural, psychological and entertainment/art perspectives -- as told through a travel/journey of discovery narrative, so the "science" doesn't get overwhelmingly wonky. And when there are fart jokes and antics, it's entertaining and appropriate. A pleasurable, easy read that leaves you well-informed about ...more
Meera Sapra
Aug 02, 2014 rated it really liked it
This book provides some interesting insight into what makes things funny. I like how the author describes their travels across the world trying to understand how different cultures impact humor.

Also liked how they did a lot of comparative analysis of existing theories around humor and how they tried to test their own theory in real world situations. The authors clearly did a lot of groundwork and while the findings aren't really groundbreaking or compelling, they make for an interesting read. T
Dayna  McCormick
Jan 02, 2018 rated it did not like it
If you don't love the first few pages, just wait a few more pages and then set yourself on fire because it only gets worse.
Todd Martin
Jul 12, 2019 rated it it was ok
Here’s a deceptively simple question for you … what makes something funny? If you weren’t able to come up with a good answer don’t feel bad, psychologists, philosophers and scientists have been trying to answer this question for decades and they haven’t made much progress either.

The Humor Code, written by Peter McGraw an associate professor of Marketing and Psychology at the University of Colorado Boulder and journalist Joel Warner is an attempt to unravel the secret of humor. And it just so ha
Vince Darcangelo
Apr 07, 2014 rated it it was amazing

The Humor Genome Project

A journalist and a scientist walk into a bar… travel the world, return to the lab and come out with what is likely the best book you’ll read all year

by Vince Darcangelo

In my graduate form and technique class, our instructor, Steven Schwartz, devoted a three-hour class period to humor. I was shocked to learn that there was a dearth of comic literature to study.

Why had so few serious writers ventured down that rabbit hole?

Maggie (babewithabookandabeer)
This is an interesting nonfiction piece! It's 2 dudes with PhD's who traveled the world dissecting what makes people laugh in different cultures. It's the science behind humor. I had to read it in sections as some times it can be a bit much, but it is extremely interesting to say the least. Here's some facts for me to spew off from it to give ya a breeze through:
1. The issue of The Onion titled Hijackers Surprised to Find Themselves in Hell, written on 9/11, is still to this day the most-comment
Elliot Ratzman
Aug 21, 2017 rated it liked it
This is a painless introduction to the field of “Humor Studies”. The authors, a professor of behavior psychology and a local journalist, embark on a multi-country tour exploring different aspects of comedy, the causes of laughter, and the nature of humor. They give you a sense of the variety of academic theories from Plato and Aristotle, Freud, Arthur Koester, to recent social scientific theories about what makes things funny, how jokes get made, and why we (and apes) laugh. McGraw is the direct ...more
May 22, 2019 rated it it was ok
If you are interested in reading a non-fiction book that is written like a novel, traveling to many places then this is the book for you. If you are interested in how to write jokes or insert comedy into your writing then keeping surfing, scrolling, flipping or using whatever method you use to find books and do a hard pass on reading this book.

The author is a great writer who knows how to create an interesting scene (which is why I gave it two stars instead of one), but this book should be mark
Nov 20, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2017
As someone who values humor in my daily life, this book was a fun read. However, if you are looking for an in-depth scientific analysis of humor/comedy around the world, this may not be what you are looking for (though a few recommendations of the sort are made throughout the book). This story is more of a comedic adventure around the world in pursuit of what makes things funny and to reinforce Pete's benign violation theory.

I feel it is also necessary to note that I have Pete as a professor at
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Dr. Peter McGraw is a behavioral economist, professional speaker, and expert on the scientific study of humor.

A marketing and psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, McGraw investigates the interplay of emotions, judgment, and choice. His research has been covered by The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, BBC, TIME, CNN, Wired, and Harvard Business Review.

McGraw teaches

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“Most experts today subscribe to some variations of the incongruity theory, the idea that humor arises when people discover there's an inconsistency between what they expect to happen and what actually happens. Or, as seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal put it when he first came up with the concept, "Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees.” 2 likes
“Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process” 1 likes
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