What's so funny?

SINGAPORE- In 1975, Mr Alex Mitchell, a 50-year-old bricklayer from King's Lynn, England, died laughing after watching an episode of the BBC television comedy series, The Goodies.

The incident was widely reported in the British press.

Around the same time, my father told me the following joke.

A man went to the doctor and said: "Doctor, I get a pain in my eye every time I drink tea."

The doctor replied: "Then take the spoon out of the cup."

I remember laughing so hard that I could hardly breathe - though, thankfully, I lived to tell the tale.

Later, I shared the joke with my friends, but was surprised to find that none of them found it nearly as funny as I had.


This set me wondering if there was a joke so hilarious that it would make everybody laugh.

If so - and if I could find out what it was - then I could tell it to my school friends and create a sensation.

I turned to the Guinness Book Of World Records, but was disappointed to discover that there was no entry for "funniest joke".

My comedic hopes were dashed.

Imagine my delight, then, when I recently stumbled upon psychologist Richard Wiseman's 2007 book Quirkology, and learnt that he had once conducted a year-long scientific search for the world's funniest joke.

In 2001, Dr Wiseman and his team of researchers set up a website where people from around the globe could enter a few details about themselves, submit their favourite jokes and rate jokes submitted by others.

Altogether, more than 40,000 jokes were collected and rated.

Most jokes barely raised a chuckle.

A minority were funny enough to get a thumbs-up from more than 25per cent of reviewers.

A mere handful achieved an approval rating above 50 per cent.

And even the very top joke was considered funny by only 55 per cent of those who took part in the experiment.

So much for my childhood dream.

Dr Wiseman's research failed to unearth a single joke that had universal appeal.

Instead, it showed that different jokes appeal to different people.

Women, for example, laugh at jokes in which men appear stupid, whereas men prefer jokes that poke fun at women.


During the course of his research, DrWiseman discovered something interesting.

All of the top jokes had something in common - they created a sense of superiority in the reader.

Here are two examples.

A teacher decided to take her bad mood out on her class of children, and so, said: "Everyone who thinks he's stupid, stand up!"

After a few seconds, just one child slowly stood up.

The teacher turned to the child and said: "Do you think you're stupid?"

"No," replied the child, "But I hate to see you standing there all by yourself."

And have you heard about the man who was proud when he completed a jigsaw within 30minutes because it said "five to six years" on the box?

In the first joke, a pompous teacher is taken down a peg or two and, in the second joke, a man is shown to be outrageously stupid.

In both cases, the reader gets to feel smugly superior.

The idea that laughter is most often prompted by situations that allow us to feel superior is not a new one.

Greek philosopher Plato made the link more than 2,000 years ago.

Dr Wiseman's research suggests that Plato got it right.

And, if you think about it, it makes sense.

Everyone has anxieties and insecurities.

Everyone worries about his status.

So it is not surprising that people find comic relief in jokes about others' inadequacies and misfortunes.

If you would like to read the top-rated joke from Dr Wiseman's study, check out: richardwiseman.wordpress.com/books/psychology-of-humour/.

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