“What’s so funny?”
For Peter McGraw, Associate Professor of Marketing at CU Boulder, the question is not a rhetorical one. Peter’s research into the field of human behavior and decision making led him on a quest for answers to an age-old question: What is it exactly that makes people funny? Before we can answer that question, however, we need to turn the clock back a few years.

After receiving his Ph.D. from Ohio State University in 2002, McGraw continued on to pursue a postdoc at Princeton University with Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman (hailed for his work on the psychology of judgement and decision making). His early research about emotions and expectations led him to interview, and eventually publish, accounts of Olympic athletes who had medaled at the games. These publications served as the groundwork for what would later become McGraw and fellow colleague Jonathan Levav’s brainchild, Emotional Accounting.
In the years leading up to 2010, McGraw began to concentrate his research more and more directly on humor as a psychological component of the human condition. After co-founding the Benign Violation Theory (BVT),a unified theory of humor, Peter attracted the interest of award-winning journalist, Joel Warner. Over the course of a year, the two hatched, planned, scheduled, and prepared for what was to become their grand adventure and latest enterprise, The Humor Code.
The Humor Code, co-authored by McGraw and Warner, is a two-year, 91,000 mile epic saga detailing the lives and perspectives of the world’s funniest individuals. From Tanzania to Scandinavia, Japan to Peru, the pair left no corner of the world untouched in their search for answers. McGraw’s research and subsequent book has been covered by some of the top names in the media industry including NPR, The Wall Street Journal, and The Scientific American.
Presently, McGraw divides his time between his responsibilities as a marketing professor, researcher, and host of the highly entertaining podcast, I’m Not Joking.
In order to better understand the reasons behind the decision to host a podcast, we met up with McGraw and picked his brain about the in’s and out of his research and subsequent results of becoming a host. Straight away, Peter admitted, “I might have launched the podcast for a different reason than a lot of people normally launch podcasts.” He goes on to explain, “I really do these podcasts so that these interesting and funny people will talk to me.”

And that’s when we learned behavioral scientists can crack jokes! Who knew?
All kidding aside, McGraw’s podcast approaches the subject of comedy at the crossroads of stand-up and scientific research (we didn’t even know there existed such a place). And that’s one of the things that makes his show genuinely unique. By bringing his research background into the interviews, McGraw is able to create a highly entertaining and informative, back and forth with his guest speakers.
“I was tired of the typical podcast with two comedians talking about comedy. My goal is to look at the role of comedy, and specifically into the world of funny people, to learn what their habits and perspectives are, as well as how they live their lives.”

With a hefty background in academia, we were curious to know why McGraw had chosen podcasting. After all, his prior publications indicated a strong inclination towards the written rather than the spoken word. We found that while this may be true, fundamentally, Peter considers himself a speaker:

“I blogged for many, many years… A lot of my world is sitting in front of a computer writing, and yet, I’m a talker. I’m much better at speaking than I am at writing. Besides, the conversations I have with my guests never feel like work.”

Thus, conducting interviews and exchanging dialogue with funny people was an obvious choice for McGraw. Podcasting was where he wanted to go. When asked about the impact both the book and the podcast have had on his life, he was quick to reply with a smile, “I have a whole new set of friends all around the world, some of the funniest individuals I’ve ever met.” And it’s all thanks to one simple question: What’s so funny?
If you’re interested in learning more about comedy from a scientific perspective, or just want to hear Peter exchanges witticisms with the best of them, we recommend starting with his feature episode of international comedian Jimmy Carr or Australian comedian Gillian Cosgriff. We promise, both will have you doubled over in sweet, sweet abdominal agony.