Is it science? How to make the world’s funniest joke funnier

April 10, 2014

What’s the funniest joke in the world? It depends upon whom you ask, right? Possibly, wrong.

About a dozen years ago, British researcher Richard Wiseman set about to discover, objectively, the world’s funniest joke. According to Scott Weems in his book “Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why,” Wiseman tested several different ones with a million people. The winner:

“Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He’s not breathing and his eyes are glazed, so his friend calls 911. “My friend is dead! What should I do?” The operator replies, “Calm down, sir. I can help. First make sure he’s dead.” There’s a silence, then a loud bang. Back on the phone, the guy says, “OK, now what?”

Now, other authors with serious interest in humor have taken that research further, to sometimes (but not always) hilarious results. Peter McGraw, who leads the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at the University of Colorado Boulder, and "Westword" writer Joel Warner co-authored “The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.” Warner and McGraw wanted to find out how to make that joke funnier. They asked an improv troupe called the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre (UCB) to make short videos of the hunter joke, using it as a framework but allowing some creative freedom.

But first, they had the UCB make a control video in which the actors hewed closely to the joke:

Other teams were tasked with making the joke funnier, Joel Warner says. After making the videos, Warner and McGraw submitted them to 600 online survey participants across the country to see which would score the highest humor ratings.

A couple of the UCB teams’ hunter joke variations turned out to be no more funny or offensive than the baseline version. One of them turned the scenario into a dubbed kung fu movie:

Another featured a hysterical clown using a squeaking plastic hammer to beat to death a kid:

But the other two adaptations, one an extreme variation of the original hunter joke and one a mild variation, were rated significantly funnier, while also less offensive. The “less offensive” part is somewhat surprising considering one of the videos featured an emergency-services operator plagued by all sorts of callers misinterpreting his instructions, leading to a two-minute tableau of death and dismemberment:

While the other top scorer involved a hunter who was horribly inept at killing his friend, leading to gunshots, hand-to-hand combat and Good Samaritan passerby offering to help by running the guy over with his truck:

The secret, Warner writes, lies in how these two comedy clips were crafted. All the violence that should have made the videos more offensive occurred off camera, the unpleasantness only hinted at through sound effects. So the world’s funniest joke can be made funnier without becoming more offensive—but it takes some serious work.