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How many psychologists does it take…?

2011 May 8
by Paul Vallely

Did you hear about the man who drowned in a bowl of muesli? He got pulled under by a very strong currant. It’s the way I tell’em. Actually it’s not. What decides whether or not you think that’s funny is, apparently, who you think I am. Suppose I’m Frank Skinner in disguise; then your laffometer will be predisposed to rise. But if a ‘non-humourous’ celebrity lies behind my byline – Peter Andre, say – watch the fickle finger flicker downward.

We can thank the annual conference of the British Psychological Society for this insight, along with the fact that seeing a No Smoking sign makes smokers crave a ciggie or that drinking hot chocolate will make you do maths quicker and more accurately. There’s nothing like a bit of psychology to tell you something otiose or restate the bleeding obvious.

Still psychology has uncovered the world’s funniest joke. Dr Richard Wiseman, of the University of Hertfordshire, got three million hits and his LaughLab website crashed when he asked the world to vote. Here it is, though don’t get too excited:

“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?’ ”

That gag, which was submitted by a 31-year-old psychiatrist Gurpal Gosall, from Manchester, had universal appeal across countries, ages and gender. Apparently it contains the three key elements of a good joke: incongruity, the relief of anxiety and making the teller feel superior.

Different cultures have different emphases though. Brits like wordplay. Patient: ‘Doctor, I’ve got a strawberry stuck up my bum.’ Doctor: ‘I’ve got some cream for that!’  Whereas the French, Danes and Belgians all preferred something more surreal:

“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.’

The Yanks, unsurprisingly, go in for superiority. “Texan: ‘Where are you from?’ Harvard graduate: ‘I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.’ Texan: ‘OK, where are you from, Jackass?’.”

The four commonest joke themes are a clever-dick getting his comeuppance, husbands and wives not being loving, doctors being insensitive about imminent death and God making a mistake. Patterns of three are common, with two straight-man examples and a third one to shatter expectations as in: My favourite books are Moby-Dick, Great Expectations, and Rock Hard Abs in 30 days.

But there are some objective factors. Interdisciplinary brain scientists have shown that the prefrontal cortex and the mesolimbic reward centre find ducks funnier than other animals when they are substituted in gags. Computer analysis suggests that jokes containing 103 words are especially rib-tickling. And the Germans – a nation not renowned for their sense of humour – found just about everything on the LaughLab website funny.

The English, Scots, Welsh and Irish voted this best: “A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says: ‘That’s the ugliest baby that I’ve ever seen!’ The woman goes to the back of the bus and sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her: ‘The driver just insulted me!’ The man says: ‘You go right back and tell him off – go ahead, I’ll hold your monkey for you’.”  The truth, in the UK at any rate, is cruel.

So did you guess? What’s pink and fluffy? Pink fluff.  See it was Peter Andre after all.

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