The power of laughter can’t be underestimated. It’s actually good for your health, with research linking it to reduced stress and anxiety, an improved immune system, and even better blood circulation. This makes laughter a critical tool to help get us through tough times and everyday stressors. It’s essential to a happier life.
Whether it’s a written joke, physical humor, or random event, comedy comes in many forms. Stand-up comedians, comedy writers, and humorists are masters at delivering the punchlines that make us chuckle. The ease with which they make us laugh makes their craft seem effortless, but it’s a task they take extremely seriously.
So what exactly determines what we find funny? And why do we laugh in the first place? Is there a scientific criteria that can tell us more about the power comedy holds over us?
The answer, according to experimental psychologist Richard Wiseman, PhD, is yes. Back in 2001, he did an exhaustive study on the things that collectively make us laugh, gathering survey results from people across the globe who explained what they found funny and which classic jokes made them laugh the most.
After receiving over 40,000 jokes and 1.5 million votes, Wiseman’s goal was met: He discovered the most universally funny joke in the world.
So what’s the joke you may ask? And why was it found so funny by various cultures? We’ll get to that in a bit. But first let’s discuss more about what tickles our funny bones.
How Our Brain Interprets Comedy
We know there are some health benefits that laughing provides, but what physiological response makes us laugh in the first place?
To understand the nuance and delivery of a joke, you must have flexible thinking, and that’s where your prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain associated with personality development, expression, complex decision making, and social behavior) comes into play.
During Wiseman’s research, he studied the brain activity of several volunteers while listening to jokes. In each case, he noted that the prefrontal cortex showed the most activity during the delivery of a punchline.
This part of the brain helps us to make sense of the punchline and register surprise, by sending signals to our supplementary motor area and nucleus accumbens (which plays a major role in the reward circuit that releases dopamine and serotonin), and, depending on how good the joke is, eliciting a chuckle, giggle, or a belly-laugh.
“Timing is everything.”
We don’t know who first said that, but nonetheless, it’s the bedrock of comedy. You can’t just lob a joke and expect people to laugh. There’s a craft to comedy, and it’s how you stage the delivery from set-up to punchline that can make a joke succeed or bomb.
In the 1972 book How to Be a Comedian for Fun and Profit, authors Harry King and Lee Laufer define comedic timing as “knowing when to stop speaking in the midst of a routine in order to allow thinking time for the audience to prepare itself for the laugh that is coming up.”
The study had students performing the same joke at various speeds and pauses. The results? There was no magic formula for timing that they could replicate. In other words, every comedian (or amateur joke teller) has their own sense of rhythm in delivering a punchline—it’s a skill, but not a science.
When asked his thoughts on comedic timing, New York City-based comedian Travis Worth says, “I think you can plan as much for it as you want, but it’s definitely spontaneous. I’ve told the same joke maybe 20 times, and maybe three out of four times I’ll tell it and it will land and people will laugh, and then there’s that random time when I just get dead silence.”
While the art of comedic timing may be elusive to explain, Wiseman’s study reveals a different way that timing is a factor in comedy. Namely the time of day you tell a joke might make a big difference in eliciting a laugh. According to his research, people react best to jokes at 6:03 p.m. and are less likely to laugh at 1:30 a.m.
Not only that, but the time of the month also factors in—respondents found jokes funniest around the fifteenth of the month and less funny at either the beginning or ending of the month.
The Element of Surprise
Aristotle said, “The secret to humor is surprise.” And Wiseman’s Incongruity Theory illustrates this concept, noting jokes that defy expectations and use elements that seem out of place make us laugh the most.
He uses this joke as an example: “Two fish in a tank. One turns to the other and says: ‘Do you know how to drive this?’”
In that joke, the Incongruity Theory sets us up to think the fish are in a fish tank. But by using a play on words, the double-meaning surprises us and makes us laugh.
Comedian Dan French, who has written for the likes of David Letterman, Dennis Miller, and Wanda Sykes, says the element of surprise is all about getting an audience to anticipate the punchline using a psychological listening pattern: “In standup the last word is usually the ‘punch word.’ You train the audience to wait until the end of the sentence because they know they’re going to get a payoff right there.”
“In standup, the information is the moment of surprise,” he adds. “You think you know what’s going to happen. … and then it suddenly switches.”
Benign Violations Theory
Peter McGraw, PhD, psychology professor at the University of Colorado Boulder, has made a career trying to crack the code of what makes something funny. He even wrote a book about it in 2014—The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.
McGraw says one of the tenets of comedy is the Benign Violation Theory. What does that mean exactly? That people find things funny if it meets two conditions: (a) it threatens our perceptions of the way the world should work, and (b) it presents this information in an non-threatening manner.
This applies to everything from dirty jokes (popular because it challenges our moral and social mores), to observational humor (à la Jerry Seinfeld), which mocks the absurdity of everyday societal norms. Jokes about flatulence may be benign violation in its purest form—everyone does it, but it still causes a shock in a public setting.
McGraw says even the act of tickling, which elicits laughter, is a benign violation because it violates our personal space without being hurtful.
The Funniest Joke (According to Science)
Okay, we saved the best for last. We guess. Here’s the joke that respondents on Wiseman’s survey found the most universally funny:
“Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He’s not breathing and his eyes are glazed, so his friend calls 911. ‘My friend is dead! What should I do?’ The operator replies, ‘Calm down, sir. I can help. First make sure that he’s dead.’ There’s a silence, then a loud bang. Back on the phone, the guy says, ‘Ok, now what?’”
If you didn’t fall over laughing, don’t feel too bad. In an interview, Wiseman says he doesn’t think it’s all that great either. “It’s terrible. I think we found the world’s cleanest, blandest, most internationally accepted joke. It’s the color beige in joke form.”
So can something be funny to everyone?
French (who was also unimpressed by the aforementioned joke) says it’s difficult to make something universally funny because “verbal humor just doesn’t translate very well. … so much of humor is tricks of language anyway.” He adds that that’s one reason slapstick translates so well, given it is not dependent on words.
He adds humor can also be generationally limited: “If you do a standup act written for adults—try to do it for teenagers sometime,” he laughs. “You’d just get stared at.”
Worth says it’s essential for a comedian to know their audience. “If you don’t know who your crowd is,” he says, “you have to come up with something general that won’t offend too many people, which is really hard in this day and age.” This makes it difficult to cast such a wide net when approaching comedy.
He also touches on another important aspect of comedy—keeping up with the times: “There are jokes that I don’t do anymore because the environment has changed or the material just isn’t timely enough.”
And as far as a universal joke is concerned? “There can’t be a universal joke because there is no such as a universal person. We share similarities with people at all times, depending on situation, ideology, race, sexuality, biology, but there will never be a singular joke or moment because of the differences between people based on situation, ideology, etc.”
The Final Verdict: Is comedy a science?
French, (who, it should be noted, has a PhD in rhetoric), downplays the notion that there’s a scientific approach to comedy, saying it’s “a misapplication of the idea of science. You can’t dissect comedy with science and expect it to make sense. You can kind of do it with linguistics, but that’s not science.”
While that leaves room for debate, a comedian can approach their craft with the same sense of intellectual curiosity that befits some of the greatest scientific minds.
In an interview with Fast Company, Joel Warner, who co-wrote The Humor Code with McGraw, said, “The best comedians hone their material scientifically by experimenting bit by bit. And the only way to learn is through hard, repetitive, empirical work.”
In other words, while things like comedic timing have an almost mystical, elastic quality, making the perfect joke is hard work, achieved through dedication, craft and practice. It’s all about that punchline registering in our prefrontal cortexes. Preferably delivered at 6:03 p.m. on the 15th of the month.