The Times August 14, 2006

You havin' a laugh? The hunt for British humour
By Adam Sherwin, Media Correspondent

"I have a cunning plan" : British humour and comedy is the best in the world

ARE Cockneys really funnier than Scousers, and can the Welsh make jokes as well as being the BUTT of them?

The Open University hopes to find the answer with an experiment to discover just what makes us laugh.

From Monty Python to Ricky Gervais, British comedy has gathered devotees around the world. But scientists have yet to break down the components of a national humour that stretches from madcap surrealism to deadpan observation. Do denizens of the West Country laugh at the same gags as Geordies? Are some groups or individuals universally the butt of a funny joke? Do the stories we tell all lead to the same punchline?

With the aid of a travelling joke booth, academics hope to identify the regional nuances, themes and methods of delivery that make up the funniest jokes in Britain.

Exeter’s funny men and women will be the first to impart their favourite joke or story when the booth arrives there this month. Liverpudlians, who often claim to be Britain’s sharpest wits, will have their opportunity, along with shoppers in Gateshead and at the Bluewater Centre in Kent.

Marie Gillespie, senior lecturer in sociology with the Open University, said: “We all tell funny stories and jokes but not all of us get a laugh. We will be analysing the component parts of what it is that makes a story funny and why some jokes are funny and others not.” She added: “Are there themes or jokes that recur? Is there one Big Joke in Britain today? What does the Big Joke tell us about British identities today?”

Stand-up comics may recoil at the prospect of sociologists analysing something as instinctive as humour, but the research will be fed into a BBC One series presented by Lenny Henry, which will explore the British national identity through its sense of humour.

Ms Gillespie said: “We hope this will show how humour functions as a social barometer. We will decipher the social and political climate, the pulse of the nation, to find out what makes us laugh both individually and collectively.” Amateur gag-tellers are invited to enter the joke booth and tell their favourite funny stories and jokes or simply what has made them laugh most recently.

Henry, born in the West Midlands, will investigate the roots of regional humour and test new material on local audiences for Lenny’s Britain, co-produced by the Open University.

The British Association for the Advancement of Science attempted to identify the funniest joke in the world in 2002. The “New Jersey hunters” gag provoked the most laughs from an international panel. The joke provoked key responses, crucial to a killer gag, of “feeling superior, reducing anxiety and surprise,” according to the psychologist behind the project. Researchers said, however, that the winner was at best “ordinary” because it won by appealing to both sexes, all nationalities and all religions.

“The bus baby” was Britain’s funniest gag, but there were marked differences in national responses. The British and Australians prefer word play, Americans like something that makes them feel superior and most European countries prefer the surreal. Germans belied national stereotypes by enjoying every type of joke.


World’s best joke
Two New Jersey hunters are in the woods when one falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other calls the emergency services.

He gasps: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says: “Just take it easy. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is silence, then a shot is heard. The hunter’s voice comes back on the line. “OK, now what?”

Best British joke
A woman gets on a bus with her baby. The driver says: “That’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen. Ugh!” The woman sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her: “The driver just insulted me!” The man says: “You tell him off, I’ll hold your monkey.”

Top joke in England
Two weasels are sitting at a bar. One starts to insult the other. He screams: “I slept with your mother!” The bar gets quiet as everyone listens for what the other weasel will say. The first again yells: “I SLEPT WITH YOUR MOTHER!” The other says: “Go home dad, you’re drunk.”

Source: British Association for the Advancement of Science LaughLab survey


BBC comedy Blackadder was voted the 2nd best British comedy of all time (after Only Fools and Horses). Here are some quotes -

"Have you ever been to Wales, Baldrick?"
"No, but I've often thought I'd like to."
"Well don't, it's a ghastly place. Huge gangs of tough sinewy men roam the valleys terrifying people with their close harmony singing. You need half a pint of phlegm in your throat just to pronounce the
placenames. Never ask for directions in Wales, Baldrick. Youll be washing spit out of your hair for a fortnight."

- Edmund Blackadder and his peasant Baldrick

"Baldrick, your brain is like the four headed, man-eating haddock fish beast of Aberdeen"
"In what way? "
"It doesn't exist "

- Edmund & Baldrick

I can't see the point in the theatre. All that sex and violence. I get enough of that at home. Apart from the sex, of course.
- Baldrick

M: Unhappily Blackadder, the Lord High Executioner is dead.
BA: Oh woe ! Murdered of course.
M: No, oddly enough no. They usually are but this one just got careless one night and signed his name on the wrong dotted line. They came for him while he slept.
- Melchett & Blackadder

[Blackadder is writing a letter to Amy, as dictated by the Prince.]

Prince George: Tally ho, my fine, saucy young trollop. Your luck's in. Trip along here with all your cash and some naughty night attire, and you'll be staring at my bedroom ceiling from now till Christmas, you lucky tart. Yours with the deepest respect etc. Signed George. PS Woof, woof!

Blackadder: Ah, yes your highness...if I may change one small aspect?

Prince George: What?

Blackadder: The words?

Baldrick: I have a cunning plan to solve the problem.

Blackadder: Yes Baldrick. Let us not forget you tried to solve the problem of your mother's low ceiling by cutting off her head.

Blackadder: Right Baldrick, let's try again. This is called adding. If I have two beans and then I add two more beans, what do I have?

Baldrick: Some beans.

Blackadder: Yes...and no. Let's try again, shall we? I have two beans, then I add two more beans. What does that make?

Baldrick: A very small casserole.

Blackadder: Baldrick, the ape creature of the Indus have mastered this. Now, try again. One, two, three, four! So how many are there?

Baldrick: Three

Blackadder: What?

Baldrick: (Pointing to one) And that one.

Blackadder: (Picking it up) Three and that one. So if I add that one to the three what will I have?

Baldrick: Ah! Some beans.

Blackadder: Yes. To you Baldrick, the Rennaissance was just something that happened to other people, wasn't it?