Sunday, March 30, 2014


Comedy is one of the few subjects (along with sleep) that seemingly eludes the grasp of science. Despite years of research and dozens of theories, we seem to be no closer to a definitive answer for the question "What makes things funny?" Journalist Joel Warner and humour researcher Pete McGraw hope to change that, embarking on a world-spanning journey to uncover the principles underlying humour, laughter, and all things related to the great goal of the guffaw.

Though the mission statement of The Humor Code is relatively simple, what results is anything but. For a book that weighs in at around 250 pages, Warner & McGraw's book covers a dizzying array of topics, showing just how complex the topic of humour really is. The study of "how to be funny" actually only turns out to be about a sixth of its length. The remainder is an examination of humour in a bevy of international contexts: how the appropriateness of comedy in Japan is much more dependent on the location than the subject matter, a study of the biological underpinnings of laughter in Tanzania, and the social drive and purpose behind joke-making in some of the most war-torn and serious portions of the world. If anything, The Humor Code unexpectedly (in all the best ways) turns into a historical account of laughter, tracing the patterns of jokes (and who/what they poke fun at) to social movements, revolutions, and general trends of change from some of the most tumultuous times in human civilization. Much like a good punchline, it defies expectations in the best of ways.

As well, much like The Why Axis, The Humor Code is just flat-out fun to read. Joel Warner is the central scribe here, and so tells the tale of him and McGraw's adventure from a sort of dual first-person perspective. It reads much like a buddy-road comedy in the style of Planes, Trains, & Automobiles, with one ambitious academic and one fiercely curious journalist bumbling their way through repeated disaster and unexpected obstacles. Often, it seems, those whom they would seek to study fail to find the subject matter as humorous as the authors, or their intended audience. Warner's chosen style of narrative is especially fitting given the subject matter, but regardless, it helps to balance out the occasionally very dark subject matter (the aforementioned political revolutions and poverty) so as to not bog down the book's momentum from chapter to chapter.

As Warner himself puts it, him and McGraw have set out to "kill some frogs", dissecting comedy with the expectation that like someone explaining a joke, they snuff the life (and laughter) from it. What happens, however, is the opposite: The Humor Code is a gateway book, provoking a number of poignant questions about how humour can both bring people together and divide them. As a result, it almost stumbles backward into being one of the most intriguing social deconstructions I've read in quite a while. If this looks like something that would even remotely intrigue you, you'll most likely love it as much as I did.

Vincent Smith is a taoist, aspiring writer, and dyed-in-the-wool psychology geek at the University of Guelph. You can find his writing on video games, comics, movies, and all things geek over at The Rogue's Gallery. Check out his FB page, Vincent Smith: Writer, Scholar, Gentleman, for more musings from the dark corners of the internet. Plus the occasional cat photo.

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