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By Pam Burke 

View from the North 40: How to Kill a Joke 101

 

February 16, 2018



I always said the quickest way to kill a joke was to explain it, but I think scientists have discovered, unbeknownst to themselves, that the most efficient way to kill a joke is to research it and explain the research. Thoroughly.

Apparently, academic study of jokes and laughter is a real thing.

Salvatore Attardo and Lucy Pickering at Texas A&M University Commerce wrote a study called “Timing in the performance of jokes” that I would like to share with you in part today.

In reference to punch lines they wrote: “Punch lines were identified using the standard Hockett (1973; 1977) method, as amended by Attardo (1994), and using semantic analysis. In a nutshell, the analyst starts removing phrases from the end of the text and checks whether the humorous effect is still present. When the humorous effect is no longer present, this is a strong clue that the last phrase removed was the punch line. Semantic analysis then confirms this test.”

And in case it’s still unclear, they italicized the punch line for their audience. That's spicy.

The study, though, pretty much reads that dry all the way through. I took all afternoon to read the 18-page study, but it was well worth the read. I haven’t gotten that much sleep in a long time.

Richard Wiseman, a public understanding psychologist (apparently that’s a real thing, too) set up a study for which people from all over the world could contribute jokes, and once they were all compiled everyone could access the jokes online, read them and rate them for funniness to give him quantifiable data (aka info you can count) and comment on them for qualitative data (aka info that describes stuff).

Wiseman looked at styles of jokes, like those that surprised people with a sort of twist, such as: Two fish were in a tank. One turns to the other and says: “Do you know how to drive this?”

It’s funny, right?

He goes on to explain that “the set-up line leads us to think about two fish in a fish tank. But the punch line surprises us — why should the fish be able to drive a fish tank? Then, a split second later, we suddenly realize that the word ‘tank’ has two meanings, and that the fish are actually in an army tank. Scientists refer to this as the ‘incongruity-resolution’ theory. We resolve the incongruity caused by the punch line, and the accompanying feeling of sudden surprise makes us laugh.”

And now it’s dead. Killed with precision-accuracy nerd-speak.

The most popular joke in his study across cultures, genders, ages, etc.?

“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?’”

Yeah, the funniest. Worldwide. Sure, it’s not THE funniest joke in the world, but of all the jokes submitted, he said, it had the highest and broadest appeal among all respondents. We'll take his word for it.

Wiseman also looked at other factors like timing, but rather than the timing of delivery of a joke he studied timing in the sense of the time and day people hear jokes. Interestingly, he found that 6:03 p.m. is when people are most likely to find jokes funny.

1:30 a.m. is the least funny time of day. Which seems understandable, because it’s just before closing time and everyone is trying to finish their drinks before closing time and figure out if anyone is sober enough to drive home.

And in a broader sense of timing, the data showed, people were more inclined to laugh on the 15th of the month rather than the beginning or end of the month. I hope I’m not the only one who is surprised that that is a thing — and disappointed that I'm a day late.

Going back to Attardo and Pickering, they start their humor discussion section (aka conclusion to you and me) with: “It seems fairly obvious that our results have a certain significance for the study of prosodic timing and therefore the performance of humor (both in the technical linguistic sense and in the theatrical sense).”

OK. Whatever.

And they end it with “Finally, one could wonder how these findings relate to non-narrative humor (i.e., humor that does not rely on a narrative to occur, for example occurring in non-narrative conversational exchanges). Further research is necessary … .”

Take this study ... please.

——

My grandpa’s second favorite joke was: “Y’know why geese fly in a V-formation that’s longer on one side than the other? There’s more geese on the one side.” His favorite joke was a little risqué at http://www.facebook.com/viewfromthenorth40/.

 

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