A few years ago, two researchers invited a dozen folks from an ad firm out for drinks at the Hurricane Club in New York. But this wasn’t a social call. It was an experiment in the relationship between drinking and humor.
The researchers were Joel Warner and Peter McGraw, a journalist and an academic, respectively, and the co-authors of The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny (in bookstores April 1, naturally). The test subjects were members of the award-winning creative team from Grey New York, the firm behind E*Trade’s talking-baby ads. McGraw, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado, explained to me the thinking behind the experiment: “We thought we’d take some people who were funny and see if we could make them funnier.”
The instructions to the subjects were straightforward: Come up with a gag. Have a drink. Repeat. After each round, the subjects were asked to rate their drunkenness on a seven-point scale ranging from “sober” to “shit-faced.” (McGraw admits that his study “will never make its way into a peer-reviewed journal.”) They were also asked to rate their own jokes, on a scale of “slightly amusing” to “hilarious.” The jokes were later judged independently by a sober online panel.
The experiment was designed in part to test McGraw’s “benign violation” theory of humor, one in a long line of attempts to offer a universal explanation of what circumstances make us laugh. McGraw theorizes that humor arises when something “wrong, unsettling, or threatening” overlaps with a safe, nonthreatening context. So somebody falling down the stairs (violation) is funny, but only if the person lands unhurt (benign). Slapping is funny; stabbing is not. A faux-clueless Sarah Silverman saying racist things is funny; a drunk and hostile Mel Gibson is not. Each gag the Grey New York folks created was to take the form of a Venn diagram illustrating benign violation. Among the early contributions were two circles labeled “Grandpa” and “Erection,” the overlap of which was deemed “funny.”
McGraw is not the first academic to look into the relationship between humor and inebriation. In a study published in 1985, a group of researchers at Indiana University assembled three dozen male students and gave each a strong, weak, or nonalcoholic drink. (While waiting for the alcohol to kick in, the subjects were, inexplicably, shown videos of “light popular music performed by groups such as Tony Orlando and Dawn.”) All then watched comedy clips that involved both blunt humor—a Harvey Korman and Tim Conway skit involving an elderly pediatrician, a monkey mask, and confusion over oral and rectal temperature-taking—and more-nuanced material, such as George Carlin reading fake news headlines: “Football Player Dies in Sudden-Death Overtime,” and “Boomerangs Are Coming Back.”
Respondents rated the humor of what they were watching, and were also videotaped so their reactions could be analyzed. The study concluded that “subjects in high-intoxication condition judged the blunt humor to be substantially funnier than did the subjects in the other conditions.”
McGraw’s work has put a new twist on this. He posits that drinking skews our interpretation of violation, so humor has to become more threatening in order to register as funny. “You have to be broader,” Warner explains.
The experiment at the Hurricane Club, which McGraw and Warner described for Wired.com in 2011, may have been the first to test how drinking affects the creation of humor rather than its appreciation. The ad writers’ sweet spot seemed to be two or three drinks in, when they were willing to blurt out things they might not ordinarily say, but hadn’t yet fully lost perspective on what’s considered a violation.
“Drinking reduces inhibition,” McGraw says. “But it opens the door to failure, with failure likely to be on the side of going too far.” In the end, only three of the ad folks lasted for five stiff drinks at the Hurricane Club before they decided to call it quits. Among the final gags was a Venn diagram with “cancer” in one circle and “unpoppable pimple” in the other. The creator rated it hysterical. The online panel, not so much. “As people became more intoxicated, they thought they were funnier, but a sober audience didn’t see it that way,” Warner notes.
The lesson here? Work in your jokes early in the evening and then dial back the humor. Unless, of course, your audience is keeping pace with you drink for drink. In which case, it may be time for that Venn diagram involving the leper and “pull my finger.”