To paraphrase a famous commercial, we deserve a break today. There’s been so much negative news, so much bleating and blaming about the problems we face, so much feigned outrage and false promises, that it’s enough to depress Mary Poppins.
So this week, let’s do something a little bit different. Let me tell you a joke. In fact, let me tell you three of them and you decide which one is the funniest. I’ll tell you in a moment what 1.5 million of your fellow humorists decided. And what one professor learned about humor around the world when he set out to discover what makes us laugh.
Ready? Here’s joke No. 1:
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on a camping trip. After finishing their dinner, they retire for the night. Some hours later, Holmes wakes up and nudges his faithful friend.
"Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see," the famed sleuth says.
"I see millions and millions of stars, Holmes," exclaims Watson.
"And what do you deduce from that?" Holmes asks.
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 but a small and insignificant part of the universe. What does it tell you, Holmes?"
"Watson, you idiot!" Sherlock exclaims, "Somebody’s stolen our tent!"
Okay, did that make you laugh out loud? Or at least crack a smile? If not, let’s see how you react to joke No. 2:
A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The bus driver says: "That’s the ugliest baby that I’ve ever seen. Ugh!" The woman goes to the rear of the bus and sits down, fuming.
She turns to the man next to her and says, "That driver just insulted me!"
The man says, "You go right up there and tell him off. Go ahead. I’ll stay here and hold your monkey."
Mmmm, that one’s got a bite in its tail, doesn’t it? It’s interesting how often we find humor in a put-down. That must say something about human nature, but I’m not exactly sure what. It also says something about our cousins across the Atlantic, because the folks in the United Kingdom selected this as the funniest joke of all, out of a list of 40,000.
The first joke above led in the balloting for several weeks, but finally finished a very close second to this one:
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 cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, "My friend is dead! What should I do?"
The operator says, "Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead."
There is silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says, "Okay, now what?"
If you tell me this one had you rolling in the aisles, I’m going to worry about you, my friend. If the second joke had a bit of a barb, this one is downright nasty. Because someone misunderstood the emergency operator, he murdered his friend—and we’re supposed to find this hilarious?
The sad truth is an awful lot of people did. In worldwide voting, with 1.5 million ballots cast for 40,000 different jokes, this one came in No. 1. Do you find that as troubling as I do?
Some of the other conclusions on this study were equally strange. It all started when British professor Richard Wiseman, in cooperation with the British Association for the Advancement of Science, set out to learn what makes us laugh. He asked people to submit their favorite joke to a website he created called LaughLab.
The good professor later explained the results: “We asked everyone participating to tell us which country they were from. We analyzed the data from the 10 countries that rated the highest number of jokes. The following ‘league table’ lists the countries in the order of how funny they found the jokes: Germany, France, Denmark, UK, Australia, Ireland, Belgium, USA, New Zealand and Canada.”
At the time, the professor’s comments were widely misinterpreted in the media (now, there’s a surprise) as saying that Germans had the best sense of humor. Personally, I find that assertion funny.
I’ll grant you, the Germans have a better sense of humor than some of their colleagues on the continent—the Swiss, for example. But the funniest people of all? Not by a long shot.
Wiseman went on to say that his study revealed some fascinating differences between cultures in terms of the jokes people found funny. For example, he said that many European countries, such as France, Denmark and Belgium, liked jokes that were somewhat surreal. He gave this example:
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.”
Did that crack you up? I thought not. Let’s try again. According to the good professor, Americans and Canadians much preferred gags where there was a sense of superiority—either because a person looked stupid, or was made to look stupid by another person. He used this example:
Texan: “Where are you from?”
Harvard grad: “I come from a place where we do not end our sentences with prepositions.”
Texan: “Okay—where are you from, jackass?”
That’s better. I actually smiled at that one. Could that be because I’ve met so many jackasses from Harvard? (Which reminds of the one about the Harvard and Yale grads in the men’s bathroom…)
Wiseman found that many countries in Europe also enjoyed jokes that involved making light of topics that often make us feel anxious such as death, illness and marriage. He gave this example:
A patient says: “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.’”
Did that one crack you up? Me neither.
In closing, let me tell you what has had me laughing these days and then invite you to join in the fun. Use the comments section below to share a joke you’ve enjoyed, or to recommend a book, TV show or movie that’s brightened your day.
The most hilarious book I’ve read in a long time is the latest from Dave Barry. It’s got a title I can relate to—I’ll Mature When I’m Dead. It is filled with hilarious comments and side-splitting observations. One chapter alone—“A Letter to a First-Time-Father-to-Be”—is worth the sale price. Any older gentlemen in the audience should be sure to see his chapter about Dave getting his first colonoscopy. It is, appropriately enough, near the end of the book.
And speaking of hilarious books, I’ve got to mention my favorite funny crime author, Donald Westlake, who left this vale of tears last December. A three-time Edgar winner and Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America, Westlake’s most famous creation is the hapless criminal, John Archibald Dortmunder. If you’ve never read anything featuring this sad-sack of a thief, start with the first book in the series, The Hot Rock. It will have you howling with laughter.
Topping the list of my favorite funny movies are two classics, “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and Blake Edwards’ first masterpiece (with the greatest pie-throwing scene ever filmed), “The Great Race.” If you need cheering up, rent either one of these classics. If they don’t have you laughing out loud, better check your pulse. You may not be among the living.
Until next time, keep some powder dry—and a smile on your face.