What's So Funny?

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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.

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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.

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