What do you get when you mix complex mathematics, an enterprising professor and a year’s worth of research aimed at determining the country’s penchant for humor?
A study that illustrates Kansas City’s very average comedic sensibilities, it turns out.
A University of Colorado professor set off a year ago on a quest that took him across the country in an effort to rank the comedic chops of the 50 largest American cities. And what he and his team determined is that Kansas City — coming in at a middle-of-the-road 28th, one spot ahead of San Jose, Calif., and one behind Baltimore — is neither particularly humorous nor humorless.
“You can see how people would be unhappy about that,” says Peter McGraw, the University of Colorado-Boulder professor who led the study. “But I don’t think that’s the case, actually. I think being 28th on this list is pretty good, because it means there are a lot less funny cities out there.”
On the surface, Kansas City seems open enough to the concept of funny. The metropolitan area, after all, boasts a pair of comedy clubs (the Improv Comedy Club at Zona Rosa and the Legends’ Stanford and Sons), an annual improv event (the KC Improv Festival) and a crop of highly successful homegrown funnymen (actors/comedians Paul Rudd, Jason Sudeikis, Rob Riggle and Eric Stonestreet).
Despite your views on the rankings’ accuracy, it is difficult to fault the process of those behind the study.
While various websites have grown in popularity thanks almost entirely to their propensity to arbitrarily rank things — America’s 10 happiest cities! The world’s 10 best burritos! Twenty-five things only 30-year-olds will understand! — McGraw’s study, which took roughly a year, was far from your everyday listicle. It served as the basis for a recently released book written with Joel Warner.
It began with an algorithm, dreamed up by members at McGraw’s Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado. It has been around a few years as McGraw tinkers with the theories of the source of humor: superiority, relief and incongruity. He has been published in the Journal of Psychological Science.
Here are headlines from his observations: a drunk thinks he’s funnier than you do; comedy clubs should keep the lights low to reduce audience inhibitions and this formula: comedy = tragedy + distance.
Among the factors taken into account for this study: a city’s population, penchant for visiting comedy websites, the number of comedy radio stations in town, the number of comedy clubs per square mile and the propensity of funny Twitter personalities in the area.
Each was weighted differently. For instance, while the study did take into account famous funny natives from each city — an area in which Kansas City would likely do well thanks to the success of Rudd, Sudeikis, Riggle and Stonestreet — that particular component was given less credence than others, such as a city’s tendency to Google humorous material.
With few exceptions, the top 10 looked a lot like you might imagine: Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles and Denver all received high marks.
Another takeaway: With the exception of Atlanta, which checked in as the study’s third-funniest city, the South apparently isn’t all that funny. Among the 10 least-funny cities in the study, four were in Texas (Arlington, El Paso, Fort Worth and San Antonio) and two were in Florida (Jacksonville, Miami).
Somewhat surprisingly, St. Louis didn’t make the list at all — according to McGraw, it wasn’t among the country’s 50 largest cities based on the measurement he used. But Wichita did, checking in at No. 30 thanks to what McGraw says was the very high regard in which visiting comics hold the city’s audiences.
Jeff Gase, general manager at the local Improv Comedy Club, was quick to defend Kansas City’s comedic chops. Having worked in comedy clubs across the country, including Denver and Orlando, he finds the talent in Kansas City to be plentiful.
“I tell people this all the time: I think I’m fortunate to have a pretty deep pool of (local) comics,” Gase says. “I’ve always had a pool, but sometimes it’s very shallow.
“I wish I could tell you why,” he adds, “but Kansas City seems to present this level of talent that I haven’t really witnessed before in other cities.”
Comedian AJ Finney, a Leavenworth-born comic who lives in Springfield and recently won the best of the Midwest category of the Gilda Radner LaughFest in Grand Rapids, Mich., describes Kansas City comedy as a little edgier, which he considers is a bit surprising given the city’s location in the Bible Belt.
Speaking generally about one of the study’s other points — that some cities are more conducive to humor — he acknowledges the idea that humor varies among cities and regions. And though he doesn’t individually tailor his routine to different cities, he says, he will let the location dictate whether he delves into certain subject matter.
“In Atlanta, and even spots in Denver, they’re a little more (alternative), so you can do artsy stuff,” Finney says. “I can do jokes about (singer/songwriter) Ray LaMongtagne. If I’m doing a one-nighter in some small area, then I’m going to say Ray LaMontagne and they’re not going to know who I’m talking about.”
Some have remained skeptical about an attempt to rank something as arbitrary as humor. Since publishing the study, McGraw says, he has received correspondence from readers nonplussed about their city’s ranking, and in a recent New York Times story about the study, multiple sources spoke of the difficulty in quantifying “funny.”
Does Kansas City have a distinct type of humor, for instance? Something interesting that can’t be found elsewhere?
In a word, McGraw says, “No.”
But the professor did offer a few ways in which the city might boost its comedic profile in the event if his team ever updates its rankings.
“If Kansas City wanted to game the system, what they would want to do is become a better audience, laugh at more comedians’ jokes,” McGraw says. “They’d also want to build more comedy clubs, because those are the things that this humor algorithim ranked the highest.”
Another way the city could ascend is one that probably won’t sit well with middle managers across the metro.
“Bosses,” he says, “could encourage their employees to spend more time on (humor) sites rather than working.”