Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Q&A with the Humor Code from Untitled #47 (LOL)

During Untitled #47 (LOL), the Denver Art Museum was lucky enough to partner with the hilarious duo behind the Humor Code, Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. This self-proclaimed scholar and skeptic travel the globe researching what makes things funny.  During Untitled, the pair hosted an interactive Q&A about the science of funny with comedian Ben Roy, and also cooked up a study (with Untitled visitors as the subjects) that was simultaneously serious and silly. Before heading to Japan to try to claim spots as contestants on ridiculous game shows, they took a few minutes out their crazy schedules to chat.

DAM: Can you tell us a little bit about Humor Code?

Humor Code: The Humor Code is a collaboration between University of Colorado professor Peter McGraw and Denver journalist Joel Warner that involves a global search for what makes things funny. So far, there have been excursions to Palestine, Denmark and many of the major comedy hubs across the United States. Next up are trips to Japan, Tanzania and Peru—the latter alongside Patch Adams and 120 hospital clowns.

The seeds of the Humor Code were planted in 2010 when Joel, then a staff writer for Westword, wrote a story about Peter, his Humor Research Lab (HuRL) and his attempt to try stand-up for the first time. Needless to say, it didn't go well. But it showed there were bridges to be built between the world of comedy and the world of science.

DAM: Why was the Denver Art Museum a good venue to explore humor?

HC: We've found through our travels that great comedy is a mixture of science and creativity—a bit of analysis, a bit of practice, a bit of art and a whole lot of chutzpah. With that in mind, what better place to shine a light on the inner workings of humor than the DAM! The fact that the museum offered up a great forum to connect with the Denver community? All the better.

DAM: During Untitled #47 (LOL), you organized a study with DAM visitors. What were you trying to find out?

HC: We've long been intrigued by what makes a great comedy space. And since a real comedy club is the furthest thing from a controlled environment, we decided to build our own, scientifically calibrated comedy club in the art museum. It allowed us to show audience members a variety of funny (and not so funny) video clips while subtly changing aspects of the environment to see if it changed their reactions. In some of test runs, the room was extremely dark; in others it was much brighter. We expect a darker room helps people loosen up and leads to more laughter, but we won't know for sure until we crunch the numbers.

We also explored the tendency of many comedy stages to feature a red curtain as a backdrop. Does it really make a difference? To find out, we showed some of the comedy clips framed with a red background, and others framed with a blue one. We'll be reporting our results on Wired.com, where we chronicle our adventures and experiments.

DAM: Can you tell us about your travels and what you’ve discovered along the way?

HC: We've been all over—auditioning to be professional laughers in Los Angeles, tracking down Occupation jokes in Palestine, visiting the Fort Knox-like operations where the notorious Mohammad cartoonists of Denmark and Sweden are now forced to live. Next up is Japan—if all goes as planned, we'll be put through the ringer on some of the country's zaniest game shows.

We've tried our best to subject what we've been learning about to rigorous scientific analysis. In New York City, for example, we conducted what we call the "Mad Men Experiment." To explore alcohol's effects on humor creation, we invited one of the funniest creative teams from one of New York's largest ad agencies to a night on the town. After each drink, we had each of them sketch out a funny ad, back-of-the-napkin-style, then drink some more. The results were fascinating, but also came at a cost. We let the ad team choose the watering hole, and before we knew it, we were at one of the ritziest (read: priciest) juice joints in Manhattan. And we had to foot the bill.

DAM: Art museums tend to be more serious, quiet places. How can we highlight/encourage humor in the museum?

HC: We could say it's important to create a safe, playful space where people are encouraged to create on their own, whether that be impromptu works of art or funny interpretations of the exhibits. We could also suggest they employ the Grawlix comedians as full-time curators.

Jaime Kopke is the adult and college program manager in the education department at the Denver Art Museum. She has been with the DAM since 2011 and is always scouting for community creatives to collaborate with for A&C programs. Send her an email.