Several years ago I decided to start collecting jokes.
I was inspired by this 2009 New York Times article quoting Robert Provine, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, explaining that “[w]hat makes a joke successful are the same properties that can make it difficult to remember.” Jokes are hard to remember because memory relies heavily on pattern-matching, and humor often arises directly out of breaks in our usual patterns.
So I made a conscious decision to remember jokes, much in the same way I made the decision to actively remember people’s names after reading Dale Carnegie. They’re both great party tricks.
Most of my close friends know my favorite jokes by heart; I habitually recite them in awkward conversational pauses, at parties, in bed. This one has been in my repertoire for years:
Did you hear about the two TV antennas that got married? The ceremony was boring, but the reception was great.
I still think it’s funny, even if my girlfriend doesn’t.
When my friends couldn’t supply me with enough new jokes to annoy other friends with at parties, I turned to my Internet pal Google for a little assistance.
Google can answer almost any question that comes up in conversation—who invented the zero, for example (long story, but big ups to al-Khwārizmī1), or when Paul Simon’s album Songs from the Capeman was released (1997, not that you asked)2. A search for “good jokes”, in contrast, turns upFuNNy JoKeS make life gOoD and HuMoRouS in the top spot, which gives us this gem:
We had grandma for Christmas dinner ?
Really, we had turkey !
This might be the most brilliant anti-joke ever written. Or maybe something was lost in translation.
Okay, the first result isn’t always the best. Let’s move on to #2, danggoodjokes.com. Each joke linked from its nearly illegible homepage contains one or more jokes along with some (usually conservative) commentary on just how gosh-darn crazy our world has become, complete with rainbow WordArt headlines:
Even when they are readable, none of the jokes are funny.
The third Google result, smileJoke, brings some modern “social web” flavor into the mix. smileJoke allows users to submit ratings for each joke, and apparently, all the jokes have a rating of 1. This is not surprising given the material:
My wife had gained a few pounds. It was most noticeable when she squeezed into a pair of her old blue slacks. Wondering if the added weight was noticeable to everyone else, she asked me, “Honey, do these slacks make me look like the side of the house?” “No, dear, not at all,” I replied. “Our house isn’t blue.”
Friends, these are the top 3 sources for “good jokes” on Google. I guess Google’s ranking algorithm doesn’t have a sense of humor. But the next time your girlfriend asks you whether her jeans make her look like “the side of the house,” you now know how to get the laughs.
The best source I’ve found is, surprisingly, the Jokes subreddit. It suffers from the usual Reddit demons—trolls, memes and misogyny abound—but some of the jokes are funny, which puts it in the top 0.001%. Recently, Reddit ranked this gem as the top joke of the day (revised for clarity):
Q: What do free healthcare and good jokes have in common?
A: Americans don’t get them.
Not bad. Still, the Internet disappoints when it comes to humor.
Why is it so hard to find good jokes? Humor is subjective, of course, but is it more subjective than, say, music? Google and others have used machine learning to solve problems that once seemed insoluble, to find patterns and meaning in vast troves of data.
How come no one has applied this technology to finding jokes that are actually funny?