What's So Funny?

Feb. 15 2000 7:45 PM

What's So Funny?

Analyzing what are alleged to be the 75 funniest jokes of all time.

Last year, GQ Magazine featured a list ranking the 75 supposedly funniest jokes of all time. With long lists of alleged thigh-slappers clogging the Internet, this is an opportunity to explore a not exactly burning question, but one that chafes and produces painful swelling: What makes a joke funny? Of course, analyzing a joke is famously and accurately said to ruin it. So that is our thanks to GQ for giving us permission to reprint their list.


My research protocol was to subject the GQ 75 to three human volunteers: myself, my wife and the editor of Slate. First, I had each volunteer choose the ten funniest jokes from the GQ list. Now, suppose you were to pick ten numbers at random between 1 and 75, and do it three times. What are the chances that at least one number would appear in all three lists of 10? Answer: I have no idea, and neither did any of my editors at Slate, Microsoft employees though they may be. (If you've got the answer, please e-mail me and we'll put it—and your name—on this page.)

Anyway, not a single joke from GQ's list of 75—let alone any of GQ's top ten—was agreed by all three subjects to be among the top ten. My wife and the editor had one joke in common. The editor and I had two. My wife and I were the most compatible (phew!) with three. My top ten list included two from GQ's top ten, while my wife and the editor agreed with GQ about only one.

Here's another pseudo-scientific measure of the obvious fact that humor is subjective: I added up the GQ rankings of each person's top ten choices. If someone was in complete agreement with GQ, the resulting total would be 55 (1+2+3+4….+10). The higher the actual total, the more the person's sense of humor diverges from GQ's. My total was 296, the editor's was 321 and my wife's was 437.

Next: How many of GQ's 75 struck the experimental subjects as funny at all? I found XX of them humorous, my wife's count was YY, and the editor's was ZZ. Just 22 of the 75 supposedly all-time-greatest jokes were agreed by all three subjects to be even minimally humorous. And the 22 included none from GQ's top ten. (Look'em up if you want: 11, 13, 14, 17, 20, 22, 26, 29, 30, 32, 33, 37, 43, 50, 51, 54, 66, 67, 68, 69, 73, 74.)

But what strikes a human being as funny can't be completely random, or no one could make a living at it.

Scott Shuger was a Slatesenior writer and the original author of "Today's Papers." He died June 15, 2002.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.