We had grandma for Christmas dinner

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?


1 Source: Wikipedia

2 Source: Allmusic