Stop us if you’ve heard this one before. A Second City director, a New Yorker cartoonist, an Onion editor, and a positive psychologist walk into a bar. The positive psychologist asks the other three, “Why can’t you tickle yourself?” Nobody knows, but it leads to an intense and spirited debate about the true nature of comedy in which (ironically) nobody laughs.

No? Not ringing any bells? Okay, so maybe it’s not the most impressive set-up for a joke. But it proved to be great fodder for the Comedy Imagination Retreat, a gathering of some of the brightest minds in comedy, who huddled together around a table in the lower lobby of the Sheraton hotel in downtown Philly, determined not to leave until they had cracked the code of comedy. Or if not that, at least finished a few bottles of wine.

The group included a wide range of ages and experiences, from a 30-something stand-up comic from Toronto to a 72-year-old cartoon editor from New York City. Actors and producers and teachers and writers and editors, from stage and screen to the printed word and cartoons, almost every medium was represented in one roundtable. There was a lot of discussion—as Martin Seligman observed, compared to the other fields they’d invited to similar retreats, “You are the fastest group. The mathematicians, the psychologists are much slower”—and many, many questions posed during the three day event. Questions like, why do we laugh at Charlie Chaplin even when he’s not being especially funny? Are drugs necessary to be funny? How about personal demons? Why can’t robots tell a good joke? Did Trump get elected because he knows how to use comedy to manipulate a crowd? Why are there people who still think women aren’t as funny as men? If you’re interviewing the Dalai Lama, should you maybe not ask a smart-ass question about living in the moment? Is Bill Murray even writing any of his Tweets?

We’re not going to answer all of those questions. Instead, we’ve broken it down into four essential questions, the pillars of any serious dissection of comedy, which perfectly represents what we learned (and sometimes just argued about) during this ground-breaking weekend. 


  • Where Does Comedy Come From?
  • Does Being Funny Lead to Happiness?
  • Is Laughter a Necessary Component of Comedy?
  • Do You Need an Audience (i.e., If a joke falls in the forest and there's nobody there to notice it, is it still funny?)


Read the full report (prepared by Eric Spitznagel) 


  • Aisha Alfa, actress and comedian (Second City, My Awkward Sexual Adventure)
  • Cindy Caponera, actress, writer and producer (Nurse Jackie, I'm Dying Up Here)
  • Scott Dikkers, founder of The Onion, and its longest-serving editor-in-chief
  • Marie Forgeard, a psychologist at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School
  • Elizabeth Hyde, Research Specialist, Imagination Institute, Penn
  • Scott Barry Kaufman, Scientific Director, Imagination Institute, Penn
  • Kelly Leonard, Executive Director, Insights and Applied Improvisation at Second City Works
  • Anne Libera, Director of Comedy Studies at The Second City
  • Bob Mankoff, cartoonist and former Cartoon Editor of The New Yorker
  • Martin Seligman Director, Positive Psychology Center, Penn
  • Eric Spitznagel, Executive Writer at Men’s Health Magazine
  • Larry Wood, poverty lawyer, seven-time New Yorker caption contest winner 

Watch highlights of the event here: