He points to the fact that the comedians scored roughly on par with the actors. Comedians, he says, are just actors starring in their own play.
“It's more about the kind of person who is drawn to a world of theater more than comedy specifically,” he argues. “Gilbert Gottfried doesn't talk like that all the time. Lewis Black doesn't walk around outraged at the bus stop.”
Besides, no one gets ahead in comedy by being “an asshole,” as McGraw puts it. Such a competitive field demands attentiveness to showtimes, hours spent perfecting jokes, and being cordial to club owners.
The HURL lab once studied 600 novices and experts in the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, an improv comedy troupe, and found that the only difference was that the experts were more conscientious, McGraw said.
“The really screwed up people aren't comedians, they're criminals. They're in jails, and they're not funny. They're sad and angry," he said.
“No, there's something else that predicts success in comedy.”
Gil Greengross, a University of Mexico anthropologist, thinks the secret to being funny is being smart. In fact, he’s written that humor itself is an “intelligence indicator.”
For a 2011 study published in the journal Intelligence, Greengross gave 400 undergrads a series of verbal and abstract-reasoning intelligence tests, and then measured them against history’s greatest yardstick of hilarity: writing captions for New Yorker cartoons.
The captions were then rated by the judges, who were blind to any of the participants’ identifiable information.
As he expected, the students who scored higher on the intelligence measures also created the funniest captions. This makes sense. According to all of the theories of humor, wit involves putting discordant ideas together quickly, all while being perceptive enough to offend your audience a little, but not too much.
“You need to be clever to see the things that are wrong in the world and to make them okay,” McGraw said. “Smart people are better-read and they know more about the world. They can connect these dots.”
Greengross said that when he’s run the same tests with professional stand-up comedians, they produced much higher vocabulary scores than the students did.
And of course, the professionals “were able to produce caption after caption that were really funny.”
But—prepare to cringe, fellow feminists—Greengross found that the male students wrote more and funnier captions than the female students did, even though the men had only slightly larger vocabularies on average.
Of course, it could be that writing New Yorker captions isn’t how women best express humor. Or it could be that women don’t feel as comfortable spouting a bunch of violations, however benign, in a clinical setting.
The evolutionary explanation, though, is that women use humor as a proxy to select the cleverest mates from a crowd. It’s apparently how we determine mental fitness without forcing men to tattoo their SAT scores on their foreheads.