When the press release for TEDxBoulder caught Joel Warner’s eye back in 2010, he hadn’t the faintest idea it would ultimately lead him into the belly of a cargo plane bound for the Amazon with Patch Adams, 100 “Burning Man-type” clowns and Dr. Peter McGraw. It did, and it’s actually kind of a funny story.
McGraw, the head of University of Colorado’s Humor Research Lab, was giving a TED talk, “What Makes Things Funny,” and Warner, a staff writer at Westword in Denver, was looking for his next story. He ended up writing “The Yuk Stops Here” about McGraw and his research. When the story came out, he got a call a call from a literary agent in New York who pitched him an idea for a book: Warner and McGraw would travel the world together, studying the science of what makes people laugh.
So they did: they went to Japan, where they sat in on the tapings of several Japanese game shows and discovered all Japanese comedy industry is controlled by one giant company. They went to Palestine, where they studied how people use humor to cope during hard times. They even had an audience with Bob Mankoff, legendary cartoon editor at the New Yorker, where they learned the formula for the New Yorker cartoon (it’s about cleverness rather than hilarity). And, of course, they trekked to remote villages of the Amazon with Patch Adams and his clowns to find out if laughter really is the best medicine.
This month, Warner and McGraw released the The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny. The idea to create a list of the funniest cities in America began as a joke to promote the book. As a journalist, Warner was constantly on the receiving end of press releases with similar rankings of U.S. cities, but the methodology was sometimes…dubious.
“It started as a complete gimmick,” Warner recalls. “The cool thing is, when you partner with a dude who has an actual humor research lab they do really fascinating work around this, and they tried to actually determine what the funniest place is.”
McGraw and his colleagues spent nine months developing a formula to define each city’s sense of humor, then rank them against each other. To do it, they surveyed residents and touring comedians, and factored their responses in along with metrics like the number of visits to comedy websites, the number of comedy clubs per square mile and the number of native-born comedians.
Here’s what researchers learned about New York:
In New York, everyday humor tends to serve as a release. As one New Yorker put it, ‘The city is full of laughter. Jokes are stress relievers and most people are stressed in NYC.’ Some of these jokes are cracks at residents’ busy, fast-paced lifestyle. (‘The city has a sense of humor that can be applied to any situation, even as small as someone rushing for an elevator.’) Other jokes are at the expense of others, dark stuff that’s often related to New York’s ethnic diversity. According to one respondent, ‘I believe in NYC we have a crude sense of humor. NYC people sometimes live tough lives, so we gotta have tough skin.’
Here are two jokes researchers said were emblematic of New York’s edgy sense of humor:
“How does every ethnic joke start? By looking over your shoulder.”
“I was at the library today. The guy at the desk was very rude. I said, ‘I’d like a card.’ He said, ‘You have to prove you’re a citizen of New York.’ So I stabbed him.”
Hilarious as we’d like to think we are though, on McGraw’s list of the funniest cities in the U.S., New York didn’t even crack the top five…!
Here are the top ten funniest cities: