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Where the Jest Begins

Don't laugh, Fort Worth isn't funny.

By June 2014Comments

Photo illustration by Nicki Longoria

For nine months, the same amount of time required to gestate a human being, real scientists at an actual university crunched data in order to answer a question that has never haunted anyone: Which big city in the United States is the funniest? They calculated the number of comedy clubs per square mile, surveyed comedians, and tracked visits to humorous websites. Then they plugged those figures, and a few more, into their “humor algorithm,” which spit out an unsurprising answer: Chicago, famous for its improv-comedy scene. Los Angeles, New York, and Boston also made the top ten. 

Texas cities, however, mostly tanked. Austin, at number 14, was the state’s only reasonably funny locale. Dallas and Houston came in at 36 and 37, respectively; Arlington was 46; and San Antonio was 47. Scroll down to the very bottom of the list and there, at number 50, you’ll find Fort Worth—the unfunniest city in America, according to science.

Of course it stings. How could it not? After the results were released, Randy Butler, the owner of Hyena’s Comedy Club, the only bona fide comedy venue in Fort Worth, received taunting emails and texts from so-called friends across the country. He still can’t wrap his mind around it. “How do we not beat Detroit?” he wondered. “I’ve seen the documentaries.” The mayor of Fort Worth, Betsy Price, scoffed at the study, arguing that residents are far from humor-deprived and that they can amuse themselves “without having to go to a club or visit a website.” texas monthly asked the mayor to share her favorite joke as proof of the city’s underappreciated sense of humor. Unfortunately, it was too dirty to print.

Kidding! Here’s her joke:

What are the only two seasons in Fort Worth?

Football and construction.

Measuring humor is tricky. The study did not determine which city has the zaniest cab drivers or the cleverest bar banter. Nor did it take into account brilliant wits like Molly Ivins, who for years crafted bon mots for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, or native son Dan Jenkins, the legendary sportswriter and author of the best-selling comic novel Semi-Tough. Jenkins provided a nuanced critique of the researchers’ credentials and scientific methodology. Actually, he just called them “a bunch of commie-lib-Marxist-humorless-Democrat dunce caps.”

The chief dunce cap is Peter McGraw, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder (whether he’s a Marxist is unclear). McGraw’s Humor Research Lab conducted the study, and the results are included in The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny, a new book from Simon & Schuster that he co-wrote with journalist Joel Warner. McGraw and a colleague developed the “benign violation theory” of humor, which states that a good joke must seem unsettling while remaining essentially harmless. Too mild or too threatening and you’ve got a dud. He said he hopes a better understanding of humor can “make the world a funnier place.” 

As for Fort Worth, McGraw tried to offer some comfort. Perhaps, he says, residents simply work too hard to waste valuable time yukking it up. McGraw also wants to be precise about what his results mean. “Fort Worth looks like the least-funny city in America, but it’s not,” he said. “It’s just the least-funny large city in America. There are lots of less-funny cities than Fort Worth. I’m sure of it.” 

Hear that, Fort Worth? You shouldn’t feel bad. Somewhere out there in this vast country is a city even more humorless than you. Science just hasn’t found it yet.

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