Is there such a thing as universal humour?

25 Oct

Humour is a funny thing [excuse the bad pun].

Being funny is so much of a social context and moreso, a judgement awarded to you by others. After all, you’re only as funny as people think you are. It is the one emotion that can’t really be experienced on your own. It needs a character and an audience. We all know the painful silence when telling a joke that meets ungrateful ears. [Author’s afterthought: Perhaps this post is my personal validation of my own sense of humour…It’s not me, it’s them!]

People in different parts of the world find different things funny. What is funny in one place to some people could make people elsewhere deeply offended, embarrassed or just go right over their heads.

Do cultures have different senses of humor?

I would argue most definitely, yes. Just look at The Office and the differences between the UK version, with it’s trademark dry subtle humour, versus the American spinoff, which is much more slapstick and extreme.

So when do we learn what is funny? Or how to be funny? Is it a born talent or is it a learned skill? Is there an inherent ability in all of us to respond to humour? Or is it just one of the ways we’ve evolved to entertain ourselves?

Would an isolated tribe cut off from other human contact still develop their own way of telling jokes? Would they find things funny? Would laughter bond people together in the same way it does us? Are there universal things that would tickle the funny bones of humans anywhere, from any culture?

In 2001, the search for the world’s funniest joke was undertaken by a British scientist. The year-long experiment was intended to find out just this – to dig into the human psyche and figure out what makes us laugh and why. A huge online database will collect jokes from around the globe. Scientists will then ask people to rate the funniest jokes and then show them to a test group of people while observing their brain activity via MRI scans.

In the end, they had received 40,000 submitted jokes from around the globe and 1.5 million ratings. Here’s the winning joke:

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 whips 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 shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”

The joke was submitted by a 31 year old Brit who claims he likes the joke “because it reminds people that there is always someone out there who is doing something more stupid than themselves.”

There are a few fundamental problems with this experiment. One, participants of the experiment don’t appear to be that representative – of both cultures across the globe or even of a fair sample within the tested countries. They were most likely European / North Americans as the jokes were all in English. Jokes are still tailored towards a Western context and people appreciating these jokes would likewise have to at least have knowledge or understanding of Western culture. Not to mention, the test was administered to online users who are already more exposed to various online stimulus.

See the full experiment here:


2 Responses to “Is there such a thing as universal humour?”

  1. Charinee November 5, 2010 at 3:29 am #

    I’ve always wanted to be funny…but I don’t think it’s in my DNA. When you mentioned the awkward silence after you tell a joke…I thought you were talking about me. 😛

    • Debi November 18, 2010 at 3:34 am #

      That was especially for you 🙂

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