Funny science scores the perfect joke

The Sunday Telegraph June 15, 2004

LONDON -- Scientists have developed what they claim is the mathematical formula for the perfect joke. The equation they have formulated, x (fl + no ) / p, takes into account the length of the joke's build-up, the comedic value of the punchline and the groan-inducing qualities of puns.

The best and worst jokes are awarded values on a sliding scale from zero to 200, with 200 being the funniest.

A comedic value is determined by multiplying the funniness of the punchline (f) by the length of the build-up (l). This is added to the amount someone falls over (n) to the power of o -- the "Ouch" factor of physical pain or social embarrassment. The total is then divided by the number of puns, which reduce laughter.

The "perfect" joke would therefore score 10 for punchline and length and contain a high number of pratfalls or social embarrassments but no puns. So many traditional gags, such as the "doctor, doctor" or "knock, knock" jokes that have short build-ups, no falling over and end in puns, score poorly.

For instance: "Doctor, doctor, I swallowed a bone. Are you choking? No, I really did" would be represented as x (2 x 2 + 0) / 2 with a measly score of two points.

Shaggy dog stories, however, with lengthy build-ups, tend to score in the higher end of the spectrum.

The formula has been developed by a neuroscientist and a comedian as part of a forthcoming event at the Science Museum in London that aims to prove the hypothesis that science can be funny.

Helen Pilcher, the neuroscientist and science writer for Nature magazine who co-wrote the equation, said that good jokes could be written by following the formula's rules but that stand-up comics also needed a helping of natural talent.

"I think you can apply the formula when sitting down and writing gags," Pilcher said. "Audiences respond well to well thought out jokes. However, for a stand-up comic to be truly funny, they need to incorporate a large degree of spontaneity into their act. Of course the formula can't teach someone to be relaxed and funny on stage but it does help when you need a prepared gag to fall back on."

Times Colonist (Victoria) 2004


** Remember Folks, I don't make this stuff up, I just find it.