I recently appeared on Radio 4’s ‘The Infinite Monkey Cage’, to chat about the psychology of comedy alongside Frank Skinner, Prof Sophie Scott, Robin Ince and Brian Cox. Fun was had and you can listen to the recording here.
I spoke about a project that I conducted a few years ago called ‘Laughlab’. Billed as ‘the scientific search for the world’s funniest joke’, this online experiment ran for a year and was reported across the globe.
The project website had two sections. In one part, people could input their favourite joke and submit it to an archive. In the second section, people could answer a few simple questions about themselves (such as their sex, age, and nationality), and then rate how funny they found five randomly selected jokes on a five-point scale ranging from ‘not very funny’ to ‘very funny’.
During the project, we approached some of Britain’s best-known scientists and science writers, and ask them to submit their favourite jokes into LaughLab. The joke that went on to win the ‘best joke submitted by a well-known scientist’ category, was submitted by Nobel laureate, and professor of chemistry, Sir Harry Kroto:
A man walking down the street sees another man with a very big dog. The man says: “Does your dog bite?” The other man replies: “No, my dog doesn’t bite”. The first man then pats the dog, has his hand bitten off, and shouts; “I thought you said your dog didn’t bite”. The other man replies: “That’s not my dog”.
The comedy K
Early in the experiment, we received the following submission:
There were two cows in a field. One said: “Moo.” The other one said: “I was going to say that!”
We decided to use the joke as a basis for a little experiment, and re-entered the joke into archive several times, using a different animal and noise. We had two tigers going ‘Gruurrr’, two birds going ‘Cheep’, two mice going ‘Eeek’, two dogs going ‘Woof’, and so on. At the end of the study, we examined what effect the different animals had had on how funny people found the joke.
The winning animal noise joke was:
Two ducks were sitting in a pond, one of the ducks said: “Quack.” The other duck said: “I was going to say that!”
Interestingly, the ‘k’ sound (as in the ‘hard c’) is associated with both the word ‘Quack’ and ‘duck’, has long been seen by comedians and comedy writers as being especially funny. The idea of the comedy ‘k’ has certainly made it into popular culture. There was also an episode of The Simpsons, in which Krusty The Clown (note the ‘k’s) visits a faith healer because he has paralysed his vocal chords trying to cram too many ‘comedy k’s’ into his routines. After being healed, Krusty exclaims that he is overjoyed to get his comedy k’s back, celebrates by shouting out ‘King Kong’, ‘cold-cock’, ‘Kato Kaelin’, and kisses the faith healer as a sign of gratitude.
By the end of the project the project had received 40,000 jokes, and had them rated by more than 350,000 people from 70 countries. They were awarded a Guinness World Record for conducting one of the largest experiments in history, and made the cover story of The New Yorker.
We carefully went through the huge archive and found our top joke:
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?”
Five years after the study, we came across a documentary about Spike Milligan (‘ I Told You I Was Ill’) that contained a brief clip from a 1951 BBC programme called London Entertains with the following early Goon sketch:
Michael Bentine: I just came in and found him lying on the carpet there.
Peter Sellers: Oh, is he dead?
Michael Bentine: I think so.
Peter Sellers: Hadn’t you better make sure?
Michael Bentine: Alright. Just a minute.
Sound of two gun shots.
Michael Bentine: He’s dead.
This is clearly an early version of our winning joke. It is highly unusual to be able to track down the source of a joke, because their origins tend to become lost in the mists of time. Spike Milligan had died in 2002, but I contacted his daughter Sile, and she confirmed that it was highly likely that her father would have written the material.
LaughLab has now finished but is described in my book, Quirkology.
And you can download over 1000 of the LaughLab jokes (all clean!) here.