Why does the same joke leave one person LOLing and another yawning or stone-faced? Why do we laugh? Does humor have a dark side? Is laughter really the best medicine? These thought-provoking questions—and more—are tackled head-on in The Humor Code, the fascinating, thoroughly entertaining new book by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner—released just in time for National Humor Month.
McGraw—founder of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder—and award-winning journalist Warner traveled the globe on a quest to get to the root of what makes things funny, stopping in Los Angeles, Tanzania, Palestine, Copenhagen and even venturing into the Amazon. Among the experts they consult are a head writer for The Onion, Hunter "Patch" Adams (yes, that Patch Adams), New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff and several "top members of the Japanese Humor and Laughter Society."
Their around-the-world romp ended in Montreal, where Warner drew upon their newfound wisdom by attempting stand-up at Montreal's Just For Laughs comedy festival, which is basically the Olympics of comedy fests. How did he do? I won't spoil it for you.
If you're still scratching your head over why Tanzania, wonder no more. In this excerpt from the fourth chapter, the authors explain what drew them to the East African country:
Good news greets us in Uganda as we disembark our plane: "Uganda has defeated the outbreak of Ebola," announces a large placard standing in the airport's main hall. "Please have a nice stay."
Well, that's a relief.
We actually have a different malady in mind—one far less lethal than Ebola, but evocative nonetheless. We're here in East Africa on the trail of the so-called 1962 Tanganyika laughter epidemic. As the story goes, in 1962 in the northwest corner of Tanganyika (a country now known as Tanzania), hundreds of people began laughing uncontrollably. The affliction, if you could call it that, spread from one person to the next, and nothing seemed to stop it. Schools shut down. Entire villages were caught in its throes. When the laughing stopped months later, a thousand people had some down with the "disease."
Since then, the Tanganyika laughter epidemic has captured imaginations the world over. Newspaper articles have been written about it, radio shows have explored it, and documentaries have dramatized it. But many of these accounts detailed the incident from afar, relying on secondhand sources, scraps of information, and rumors. Few people have investigated the event themselves, tracking the laughter all the way to its source. That's why we're here.
To be honest, we're a bit skeptical of the whole account. Uncontrollable laughter, jumping from person to person like a devilish possession, doesn't make sense. But something happened in Tanganyika in 1962. There are enough firsthand accounts and medical reports to confirm that. But what that something is—and what, if anything, it has to do with humor—is still up for debate.
What do you think, readers? Will you be checking out The Humor Code?