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Laughing Matters

Psychologist Peter McGraw explores the intersection of science and humor.

What’s the value of humor? “Most obviously, it’s something that makes us and others feel good,” McGraw says. “But a shared sense of humor can also be an indicator of a successful relationship. If you and I laugh at the same things, it says we see the world in a similar way, and we’re likely to get along in other, non-humorous situations.”

What makes things funny? “It starts with the realization that a negative or threatening situation is actually acceptable or safe. In scenarios like this, which are wrong yet OK, we laugh to indicate to others that the violation is benign—so laughter serves a social purpose.”  

Do you have to be born with comedic talent? “Everybody’s funny in their own way, but some people do seem to have an advantage at being broadly funny. They tend to think it’s innate, but it can’t be, in the same way that any other complex skill isn’t. Your ability to play the piano or hit a tennis ball is improved through practice, coaching, and experimentation. That’s why the best comedians are older—they’ve taken years to hone their craft.” 

How can you tell a better joke? “Test it out in advance. Great comics make a joke seem spontaneous, but they know it’s going to land because they’ve told it before. If you tell a joke and it doesn’t go so well, don’t be afraid to apologize. My standard apology is, ‘This is what happens when someone who studies what makes things funny tries to be funny.’ I know that if my first joke doesn’t get a laugh, my apology will. I’ve had to say it enough times that I know it works.”


Peter McGraw is co-author of The Humor Code and runs the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder. 

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