Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Fool's Day 2012

Happy (April) Fool's Day! This year, I thought I'd feature the findings of a 2001–2002 study conducted by Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire (UK) to find "the world's funniest joke." There's more at his site, Laugh Lab. The top joke, selected from over 40,000 submissions (and apparently, adapted from a Spike Milligan sketch), was:

Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?”. The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

The runner-up was:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson go on a camping trip. After a good dinner and a bottle of wine, they retire for the night, and go to sleep.

Some hours later, Holmes wakes up and nudges his faithful friend. "Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see."

"I see millions and millions of stars, Holmes," replies Watson.

"And what do you deduce from that?"

Watson ponders for a minute.

"Well, astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful, and that we are a small and insignificant part of the universe... What does it tell you, Holmes?"

Holmes is silent for a moment. "Watson, you idiot!" he says. "Someone has stolen our tent!"

One of the interesting parts of the study is how different cultures tend to favor certain forms of comedy. From the study:

People from The Republic of Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand expressed a strong preference for jokes involving word plays, such as:

Patient: “Doctor, I've got a strawberry stuck up my bum.”

Doctor: “I've got some cream for that.”

Americans and Canadians much preferred gags where there was a sense of superiority – either because a person looked stupid, or was made to look stupid by another person, such as:

Texan: “Where are you from?”

Harvard grad: “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”

Texan: “Okay – where are you from, jackass?”

Finally, many European countries, such as France, Denmark and Belgium, liked jokes that were somewhat surreal, such as:

An Alsatian went to a telegram office, took out a blank form and wrote: “Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.”

The clerk examined the paper and politely told the dog: “There are only nine words here. You could send another ‘Woof’ for the same price.”

“But,” the dog replied, “that would make no sense at all.”

These European countries also enjoyed jokes that involved making light of topics that often make us feel anxious, such as death, illness, and marriage. For example:

A patient says: “Doctor, last night I made a Freudian slip, I was having dinner with my mother-in-law and wanted to say: “Could you please pass the butter.” But instead I said: “You silly cow, you have completely ruined my life”.”

Interestingly, Germany was the exception. Germans did not express a strong preference for any type of joke - this may well explain why they came first in our league table of funniness – they do not have any strong preferences and so tend to find a wide spectrum of jokes funny.

Dr Richard Wiseman commented:

These results are really interesting – it suggests that people from different parts of the world have fundamentally different senses of humour. Humour is vital to communication and the more we understand about how people’s culture and background affect their sense of humour, the more we will be able to communicate effectively.

In my own experience, I'd say that physical comedy travels the best across cultures, while word play is the toughest (not that either should be surprising). And supposedly, if you show a mixed audience of Americans and Brits A Fish Called Wanda, they will laugh at different parts. Obviously, though, these are generalizations, since some individuals have much broader senses of humor than others, regardless of their "home" culture.

Wiseman considers both the superiority and incongruity theories of comedy. There's truth to both, but I remember being annoyed when I read a comedy book insisting that all comedy is based on superiority and someone else's pain or humiliation. It's clearly not true, and refuted by many forms of comedy, from sheer silliness to the reflective "ah, I recognize myself" humor of Garrison Keillor and others. There's truth to the self-regard in Mel Brooks' great line (one of the rotating quotations in the left column) that "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die." But comedy is often self-referential, "meta," provocative, or breaks the fourth wall. I'd say Brooks' line – in addition to being funny – tweaks us on our own self-absorption. To quote an earlier post:

Comedians take many forms. There’s the crass insult comic, the observational humourist, the reflective raconteur, and the incisive satirist. Perhaps the most sublime is the Shakespearean fool, who can tell truth to power in the form of a joke, imparting wisdom while still avoiding a beating (most of the time)...

Or, to quote a more recent post, and a line attributed to Billy Wilder (and others), "If you're going to tell people the truth, make them laugh, or they'll kill you."


Cirze said...

Loved, loved, loved Billy Wilder!

One. Two. Three!


Love you,


Phil said...

The Aussies have a brutal sense of humor.

Taylor Wray said...

Nice post. Reminds me of a recent Wired article reporting on research into the science of humor: http://www.wired.com/underwire/2011/07/international-humor-conference/all/1.

Put simply, almost all jokes involve the setting up of expectations and then an immediate violation of those expectations - the stark difference between the audience's expectations and the next line that the comedian delivers is what makes people laugh. That's why jokes are often about taboo topics like incest, death, disease, the afterlife, et cetera. The strict cultural mores and sensitive emotions surrounding these topics provide ample fodder for comedians to exploit by violating them.

double nickel said...

Germans have a sense of humor? Who knew?

Batocchio said...

Suzan, hard to go wrong with Wilder, neh?

Bustednuckles, yeah, the top joke in Australia mentioned in the study is definitely "mean" humor.

Taylor, thanks for passing on that piece! Very interesting. I've read a few academic pieces on humor, and they tend to be criminally dry, but I suppose I prefer them to pieces on comedy written by people who are trying too hard and have wince-inducing senses of humor (third-rate Catskills or cheeseball "dad" comedy).

double nickel, I was a bit surprised by that, too, since the stereotype is that the Germans (and the Finns) have little sense of humor. In my limited experience, Germans have an off-beat and often dark sense of humor that doesn't necessarily travel well. Supposedly, Brecht's plays are still quite popular over there, and I like many of them, but his humor tends to be cerebral, deeply biting satire. Nothing like Nazis, oppression of the masses and existential dread to get those belly laughs rolling.

Thanks for stopping by, all!

Comrade Physioprof said...

Very interesting post. I actually found the Watson-Holmes joke *much* more hilarious than the dead hunter one, which I didn't even think was particularly funny.