"I've just been on a once-in-a-lifetime holiday. I'll tell you what, never again." Funny? Crowds at the Edinburgh Fringe thought so. Audiences recently voted this joke, delivered by the English comedian Tim Vine, the funniest at this year's festival. Vine, a veteran of the UK comedy circuit, is known for his one-liners: "Black Beauty. He's a dark horse", and, "Velcro, what a rip-off". The prize-winning holiday gag was reportedly one of 7,200 pored over by a panel of eight judges, who had been handpicked by executives at Dave TV, the UK comedy channel that arranges the annual competition. Having whittled that number down to 24, the judges then put their shortlist up for popular vote, with Vine topping an eventual top 10 list.
Within hours of Vine's victory being announced, the second-guessing had begun. Message boards and blogs lit up with suggestions for alternative winners and snarky asides ("Anyone else hate British humour?"). One poster griped about the ranked entries: "They are all terrible, but the chicken one may be the best of a bad lot." There was either a slight misunderstanding underlying this remark, or a broad streak of iconoclasm. The chicken gag mentioned above didn't make it on to Dave's top 10 funniest jokes list; this one had been singled out by the judges as one of the festival's worst jokes. It came from a woman named Sara Pascoe, and it went like this: "Why did the chicken commit suicide? To get to the other side."
Another worst-list gag was Dan Antopolski's "How many Spaniards does it take to change a light bulb? Juan." Antopolski, as it happens, picked up the Dave funniest-joke trophy at last year's festival, for the line: "Hedgehogs - why can't they just share the hedge?" While there might be a clear quality divide between these two jokes, it's not always so clear cut. Quip 1: "I like to play chess with old men in the park, although it's hard to find 32 of them."
Quip 2: "I picked up a hitchhiker. You've got to when you hit them." Both of these jokes were delivered this year by the American comedian Emo Philips - one of them made it on to Dave's best list, while the other was deemed to be among the worst. Can you say which is which? Chances are, opinion would be divided. In fact, ask 10 people to name the funniest joke ever and you will get 10 different answers.
A decade ago, an English academic named Richard Wiseman launched an experiment that sought to identify the world's funniest joke. His early findings were not promising. Different ethnic groups, he discovered, tend to laugh at different things: the Irish like word play, Americans go for put-downs, the French gravitate more towards the surreal. Wiseman did, in his own maverick way, find what he believed to be common threads binding the comedy world together: "According to the data, jokes containing 103 words are the funniest," he wrote, along with: "If you're going to tell a joke involving an animal, make it a duck."
His effort to find the world's funniest joke, it must be said, was impressively thorough. Wiseman's pool of material amounted to 40,000 jokes, which received a combined two million ratings from people around the globe. He also figured universal comedic principles into his calculations, such as "The Superiority Theory" and "The Incongruity Theory". Eventually, the joke he decided on was this: 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 takes 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 gunshot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: "OK, now what?"
While media from around the world gleefully reported on Wiseman's findings, there were always going to be dissenters. On a website catering to science enthusiasts, a survey to find the world's funniest joke produced an extensive shortlist that made no mention at all of dead hunters, but which did include the following: "What's green and commutes? An abelian grape." We should mention that this joke relies on a pun on "abelian group," a mathematical term which is defined as: "A group that satisfies the commutative law."