I actually laugh every time I hear this joke. That, no doubt, tells you something about me. It doesn't take a lot to make me laugh.
People laugh at different jokes. And there seem to be social, cultural, national, age and gender differences in what we find funny. According to humor researcher Richard Wiseman, as reported in Scott Weems' fascinating new bookHa! The Science of When we Laugh and Why, Americans like jokes that include insults or vague threats, like this one:
Harvard Graduate: "I come from a place where we do not end sentences with prepositions."
Texan: "Okay— where are you from, jackass?"
Whereas Europeans, it is claimed, go for the absurd or surreal:
A German Shepherd went to the telegram office, took out a blank form, and wrote: "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."
Some jokes, it would appear, are funnier than other jokes. And some jokes are found very funny by more people than others. So this invites a question: what is the funniest joke in the world?
This is exactly the question that Wiseman set himself. He set up a website, Laugh Lab, asking people to submit jokes and rate them. Thanks to a good deal of publicity, he collected on the order of 40,000 jokes which were rated by 1.5 million people. He got lots of information. He learned, for example, that the best jokes tend to be short. And yes, he claims to have discovered the funniest joke in the world.
I'm a philosopher. So for me the interesting question is Could there be a funniest joke in the world? Is that even possible?
It's pretty clear that whatever Wiseman came up with, it isn't gonna be the funniest joke in the world. His website was in English; so jokes in other tongues were excluded. Or consider this: maybe the funniest joke in the world isn't something that you can write down. Maybe it needs to be told. And even more to the point: maybe jokes are necessarily specific to situations, cultures, anxieties. This is where Weems' book is instructive.
Weems makes the argument that jokes have deep sources in our human needs and psychologies. Human life is complex, not simple, although we have simple needs (food, sex, safety, sleep, friendship, etc.). Humor is a response to inevitable conflict. The humor isn't in the joke; it is in the attitudes of those telling and hearing the joke. The same joke will be funny sometimes to some people and entirely fail to rouse a response to different people at different times.
I know what you're thinking though. Cut the twaddle. What is the funniest joke in the world, at least according to Wiseman?
Are you ready? Here it is:
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 guys says "OK, now what?"
So, dear readers, here's an invitation: Which jokes do you think are funniest? Keep them clean, please. This is not to say that we are prudes or that there's anything inherently wrong with rude jokes. Weems makes this point beautifully. The point of an offensive joke is not to offend, but to bring into the open what and why and how easily we are offended. But my ulterior motive is to collect jokes to tell my 12-year-old son. So let's focus on jokes that I can get away with sharing with him.
You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe