What’s So Funny?

A whimsical look at the scientific study to determine the world’s funniest joke. Holly House vote following worship.

“What’s So Funny?”

March 24, 2019

I want to preach this morning on humor. As an intern minister in San Francisco years ago my mentor was the Reverend David O. Rankin. One of David’s practices was to preach regularly on humor and on humorists he loved. His privately circulated book, Theology through Humor, is a favorite of those of us lucky enough to have a copy[1]. My remarks this morning are inspired by that volume, a New Yorker article by Tad Friend[2], and from a website[3] chronicling the efforts of British psychologist Dr. Richard Wiseman to discover the world’s funniest joke.

In his effort to find the world’s funniest joke Dr. Wiseman and his team conducted a global humor study. Science has only recently started studying this sort of thing. Humor, of course, has been around for a long time. Theories of humor have been around too. But what was once the realm of philosophers has now expanded. Psychologists—social scientists—have been advancing comedic theory for about 100 years now. More recently neurologists have gotten into the act. 

Dr. Richard Wiseman has established an international reputation for scientific research examining unusual areas of psychology. The widely published Dr. Wiseman, Director of the Perrott-Warrick Research Unit at the University of Hertfordshire, readily admits his efforts to advance humor theory began as a joke.

I was asked if I had any ideas for the government’s Science Year and instantly thought, World’s funniest joke! With one sentence, you’ve sold the project. Of course, the idea of scientifically determining the world’s funniest joke is completely ridiculous. People thought we’d have a computer that would tell you ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ is objectively a 4 on a scale of 5. And the point is that you can’t get a computer to do it—humor is a thoroughly human activity, and very, very hard to explain.

Be that as it may, they got the grant and (as dependable funding is no laughing matter) quickly went to work. For over a year, huge numbers of people from all over the world sent in their favorite jokes and rated how funny they found the jokes submitted by others. Their website, LaughLab, definitely captured the public’s imagination – they received over 40,000 jokes and almost 2 million ratings!

The results? Well, the winning joke was submitted by an English psychiatrist who shares it with his clients because, as he explained, “it reminds them that there is always someone out there who is doing something more stupid than ourselves.” It goes:

A couple of hunters from New Jersey are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”

In second place came the joke that was leading the pack until that last minute:

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!”

This joke was submitted by Geoff Anandappa, from Blackpool, England. When told that his joke had been nosed out by the hunters joke he responded, “I can’t believe I got knocked out in the final round! I could’ve been a contender…  I want a re-match, and I warn you, this time I’m going to fight dirty!  Did you hear the one about the actress and the archbishop?”

One of the things Wiseman has found regarding humor is the recurrence of certain patterns. Indeed, comedy seems reminiscent, at times, of mathematics, as Temple University professor John Allen Paulos observed in his book Mathematics and Humor. Both disciplines prize ingenuity, concision, literal-mindedness, and the use or misuse of logical notions such as presupposition, disguised equivalence, non sequitur, and reductio ad absurdum. Wiseman’s research found that joke themes keep recurring, too. “There seem to be only about four jokes that come up all the time:

  • Someone trying to look clever and taking a pratfall.
  • Husbands and wives not being loving.
  • Doctors being insensitive about imminent death.
  • And God making a mistake.”

One thing LaughLab learned was that different jokes were popular in different countries. People from Ireland, the UK, Australia and New Zealand expressed a preference for jokes involving wordplay, like the one about the rueful botanist who tried, unsuccessfully, to explain photosynthetic biochemistry to a prostitute: “Alas,” laments the botanist, “You can bring a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” Americans and Canadians preferred gags that displayed a sense of superiority—either because a person looks stupid, or is made to look stupid by someone else.

Cowboy: “Where are you from?”

Ivy Leaguer: “Where I come from, we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”

Cowboy: “Okay then—where are you from, jackass?”

Many European countries liked jokes that were somewhat surreal, for instance: An Alsatian went to a telegraph office, took out a blank form and wrote: “Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof. Woof.” The clerk inspected 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.”

Well…what’s so funny? The oldest theory is Superiority theory, holding that laughter is an aggressive-defensive mechanism, which prays on human tragedy. Philosophers including Aristotle, Cicero, Thomas Hobbs, and Henri Bergson have all believed, essentially, that we laugh at others’ expense. And it’s true: audiences have felt superior to the people who make them laugh since at least the Middle Ages when dwarves and hunchbacks were used as court jesters. It’s still true today, especially of clowns. Pathos, slapstick, pratfalls, and imitations of infirmity are comic devises based on the weakness and limitation of our human condition. Likewise, satire and parody.

Incongruity theory was first proposed by the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. According to incongruity theory, laughter comes from the disconnect between what’s expected and what, in fact, happens. Consider the following: “I went to the doctor for shingles—he sold me aluminum siding.” Our mirth—such as it is—comes in two stages: surprise, then coherence. The seeming story line of the joke (the doctor will treat shingles, an illness) collapses, but we realize immediately that the anomaly can be explained by another story line (he sells shingles, the product). This makes us laugh.

In recent years evolutionary biologists V. S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee have added a new twist to incongruity theory, suggesting that laughter is the result of a spurious threat: “The main purpose of laughter might be to allow the individual to alert others in the social group (usually kin) that the detected anomaly is trivial, nothing to worry about.” [Phantoms in the Brain, 1998]

Sigmund Freud was the first psychologist to write about humor. In a 1905 paper [“Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious”] Freud proposed the Release theory. Here jokes are how we express otherwise taboo wishes or anxieties. As in the joke about a patient who says to his psychiatrist: “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’.” Modern Freudians believe, essentially, that jokes release anxiety about things we can’t be rid of: blood, urine, feces, our families, our neighbors, and of course, our corpse.

We’ve had comedians among us, one suspects, as long as people have been around. Comedians as theorists, however, are comparatively new. So new, in fact, that they’ve  yet to resolve such simple questions as where knock-knock comes from, why you can’t tickle yourself, and whether an adult woman anywhere, ever, has appreciated the Three Stooges.

Leo McCarey, who directed the early Laurel and Hardy films, believed comedy relied on patterns of three; that jokes work best when there are two straightforward examples—to establish a pattern—and then a third to shatter it. (“My three favorite books are Moby Dick, Great Expectations, and Rock Hard Abs in Thirty Days.”)

If that sounds like incongruity theory, Mel Brooks’ ideas are superiority theory clear and simple. Consider Brooks’ definition of tragedy and comedy: “Tragedy is if I cut my finger. Comedy is if you walk into an open sewer….”

Del Close, mentor to John Belushi, John Candy, and Bill Murray, believed that laughter is related to our fear of death. The Firesign Theatre’s “Beat the Reaper” routine comes to mind, in which futuristic Reality TV contestants are supposed to guess the disease Topless Nurse Judy injects into their arm before the symptoms kill them—if they want the antidote. There is very little difference, Close noted, between the realization, ‘a-ha, I’m going to die,’ and our laughter, which is ‘ha-ha.’ Indeed, Close used to say that ‘ha-ha’ and ‘a-ha’ were related industries.

Comedians have some very definite ideas about specific techniques and scenarios that “work.” A joke is funnier if you say “Tropicana” rather than “orange juice.” Other rules of thumb are that the punch line or “reveal word” of the joke should come last, as in “I’d like to die in my sleep like my grandfather did, not screaming at the top of my lungs like the passengers in his car.” Some things just sound funny, as W. C. Fields seemed to understand by identifying himself as Cuthbert J. Twillie, Oglethorpe P. Bushmaster, or my favorite, Larson E. Whipsnade.

Neurologists note that while it’s easy to make someone smile or cry by stimulating a single region of the brain, making them laugh is difficult. Our laughter circuit is complex and various. Puns are processed on the left side of the brain by gyri, ridges on the surface of the cerebral cortex. More complex, non-wordplay jokes are routed through gyri on the right side of the brain and also trigger electronic activity in other parts of the brain. One way of thinking about it is that the left side of the brain “sets up” the joke and the right side emotionally “gets it.” Its kind of like the left hemisphere appreciates Groucho’s puns and the right hemisphere likes the antics of Harpo, but only the two hemispheres together can enjoy a whole Marx Brothers routine.

Towards the end of the LaughLab project neurologists were enlisted to carry out MRIs on people as they listened to jokes. These brain scans revealed a very precise area of the brain involved whenever we “get” a joke and start to laugh. Brain activity was monitored as subjects were presented with the initial part of jokes and then with the punch lines. Results were compared with scans recording their brain activity when reading unfunny material. And the results were clear: punch lines caused lots of activity in the prefrontal cortex at the front of the brain.

Now from my perspective the only truth in this whole matter is that studying humor scientifically is silly. Comedy is clearly more of an art than a science, fueled by flashes of intuition rather than algorithmic laws. I will cede to Dr. Wiseman one important point: one significant discovery: jokes mentioning ducks were seen as funnier than other animal jokes. Yes, it’s official and scientifically proven—ducks are the funniest comedy animals. Perhaps it’s due to their waddle, their odd shape, their webbed feet, or their beaks. But whatever the reason, the scientific data is unequivocal: if you’re going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck.

What’s so funny? Who knows? Not even Dr. Richard Wiseman knows. And that’s great to think about: science doesn’t really know what makes us laugh; it’s a total mystery. Let us, scientists and humanists among us, skeptics and mystics, revel in that mystery; and in the healing, redemptive power of humor, and everything that makes us laugh. Comics may study technique—good comics always do—but what exactly it is that makes someone funny, and what makes us laugh, is unknown. Whatever it is, though, I do know this: breaking into laughter and the humor that causes us to do so are good for the soul.

On the primal level, laughter is a spontaneous physiological reflex facilitating the disposal of redundant emotions—in layman’s terms: laughter untensifies you; chills you out. A hearty laugh stops the aggressive instinct cold: who can attack someone with whom they’re laughing? No one; laughter deflates our anger, our pride, and our fear.

On the personal level, laughter is a tool of survival by keeping us on our toes; having been fooled is a well-worn path to insight. The English poet and novelist George Meredith wrote that “Humor is the sword of common sense which slays egotism, vanity, and false sentiment.” By revealing human faults and foibles humor hurts, and delights, and teaches all at once, accounting for the success, no doubt, of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s TV shows. Shows like theirs—humor like theirs—is crucial, I believe, for our country’s social survival as a people. By relieving our tension and anxiety, humor makes easy—makes possible—the relaxed focus necessary for acting collectively. When spoofing pretense and propaganda, humor is the genesis of social criticism and reform.

At its deepest level, welcoming and nurturing a sense of humor is a religious affirmation: however trying our circumstances humor is a wellspring of hope and of faith. Our ability to laugh in the presence of death and tragedy proclaims both our refusal to be bowled over by adversity and our overarching joy with life itself.

What’s so funny? We have glimpses. Philosophers, psychologists, deep thinkers and jokesters—comedians themselves—have ideas on the subject. Neurologists, too. And now Dr. Richard Wiseman. As I said moments ago, to me, humor is a mystery, thoroughly and delightfully human, and one of life’s greatest blessings. So may it ever be. Shalom. Salaam. Amen. Namaste.


[1] Published by the Southwest UU Summer Institute, Texhoma, OK, 1984.

[2] November 11, 2002

[3] LaughLab.co.uk