The Science of Funny

Rav Winston sent me a link to a fantastic New York Times article: What’s So Funny? Well, Maybe Nothing. The article covers ongoing research at University of Maryland, Washington State University, and Florida State in which scientists are attempting to figure out why we laugh. In the Florida State research, subjects were presented with the following joke under different scenarios:

So there are these two muffins baking in an oven. One of them yells, “Wow, it’s hot in here!” And the other muffin replies: “Holy cow! A talking muffin!”

Tests showed that subjects laughed at the joke more often when it was told to them by someone playing their superior, like a boss, or an equal, like a coworker. When the joke was told by a subordinate like an employee, they laughed less or not at all. This happened even when the joke teller was on a video and thus unable to guage the subject’s reaction.

On the Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, we talked a bit about the scientific quest to identify the World’s Funniest Joke with Richard Wiseman at TAM5, which you can listen to here. Now that Wiseman’s team has pinpointed what we find funny, and this new research tells us when we find it funny, we are very close to achieving some sort of funny nirvana.

The NY Times journalist makes it clear that he thinks the muffin joke just isn’t funny. Obviously, I beg to differ. As written, it’s awful, but so much can change with a slight retooling — I’d first ditch the idea of having the first muffin yell. Much funnier if the muffin is just mildly uncomfortable: “Pretty hot in here, eh?” (Perhaps the muffin is Candian.) This makes the second muffin’s response more jarring. Then, I’d definitely drop “Holy cow” in favor of profanity. “Holy shit” is much, much funnier. A muffin saying “holy cow” is on Blue’s Clues. A muffin cursing is ready for prime time.

Finally, I would, of course, tell the joke aloud. With the right timing, I sincerely believe that this joke is a winner — right up there with the bear in the bar (told on a recent podcast) and Snoop Dogg’s umbrella. I’m going to try telling the joke around the office to coworkers and bosses, and I’ll let you know who laughs. If anyone else is brave enough, give it a go and report back!

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I laughed at the joke. I'll admit that. But I read it real fast and thought it was about talking muffs. So take that for what it's worth.

    By the way, Rebecca, I think your idea of a Canadian muffin is nice, but Scottish muffins . . .

    “Wow, ait’s doon raight hot in here!” . . . “Holy chraist! A talking mooffin!”

    Now that's comedy gold.

  2. We could do it with all sorts of Commonwealther accents. Canadian muffins! Scottish muffins! Welsh muffins! Australian muffins! South African muffins!

    And then we can conduct a scientific poll to determine which accent the joke is funniest in.

    (Scottish is a pretty strong contender right out the gate, though.)

  3. But shouldn't there be a bear involved? As in:

    So there are these two muffins about to be eaten by a bear. One of them yells, “I don't want to be eaten!” And the other muffin replies: “Holy cow! A talking muffin!”

  4. I laughed, and I’ve heard that joke before :p

    Oh, wait, maybe I laughed BECAUSE I’d heard it before. My sister in law tells jokes like this all the time, and she’s great at delivery. As I read this one, I heard it as she’d say it (:

  5. I registered here specifically to comment on the muffin joke. I am a long-term fan of this joke, and I agree with you that the original wording is atrocious. I also think you nailed it with your suggested improvements, because that’s how I tell it. I’m Australian, where Canadian accents aren’t as recognisable, so the nonchalance is more of the “Pretty hot in here, huh?” variety, but it’s definitely present, as is the stronger and less-regional cursing (though I’m more of a fan of “holy crap”).

    To analyse this thing way too far, I think the “mildly uncomfortable” thing is funnier because it is more likely to give the impression that muffin 1 is trying to start up a conversation with muffin 2 by making (ridiculous) small talk, whereas in the original version he is just shouting randomly like some kind of crazy person.

    Anyway, I think the fact that your suggested rewording matches my idea of “funnier” so closely is a much more interesting opportunity for study that the idea that people are more deferential around their peers and superiors than they are around subordinates.

  6. WzDD, fascinating! This is definitely something deserving of study. Wiseman’s research touched upon this a bit — looking into why we find certain jokes funnier than others — but it’s certainly deserving of even more insight.

    Sam, I like where you’re going on that. I literally laugh out loud every time I look up and read “moofin.” Plus the absurdity of starting a joke with, “Two Scottish muffins are baking in an oven…”

  7. You could double up on the puns by changing the beginning to:

    So there are these two muffins slowly baking. One of them says, “It’s like an oven in here, huh?’

  8. Don’t change a thing about the joke. I find it highly amusing that a muffin even knows what a cow IS.

    Maybe I cracked up so much because I imagined them with big googly eyes and a mouth where the muffin paper is…like a muppet muffin or something.

    But I’m a big fan of absurdist humor anyway….

  9. The NY Times journalist makes it clear that he thinks the muffin joke just isn’t funny. Obviously, I beg to differ. As written, it’s awful

    Methinks that you are unclear on the definition of the word "differ"…

  10. See, I don’t think the muffin joke is funny, nor do I think dressing it up any way would make it funnier. It sort of reminds me of the ketchup joke that Uma Thurman tells in Pulp Fiction – one just kind of goes “uh huh.” But then I’m not a “group” person and don’t laugh at what say my ex-coworkers do – I’d usually just reply “uh huh,” but then they’d hear me laughing hysterically at my PC. It’s not that I don’t have a sense of humor, heck I was laughing at Phil Plait’s couch and vacuum in his latest video, and Maksutov on BAUT never fails to amuse me, so I think there’s more to it, as in this concurrent link on the matter discusses. These are three comments that pop out at me:

    Molly Ivins is spinning in her grave. This column is so ridiculous — my guess is that the “scientists” were taking notes at business meetings etc. There is no account for regional variations, intimacy of group etc. Yes, sure, I bet laughter is a built in “I’m a subordinate mammal” thing, but it’s the difference between a real smile and a duchene smile. The fake stuff and the real stuff. Real laughter is pure communication, and there can only be pure communication between equals.

    — Posted by Kelly Cash

    Provine and the FSU researchers are somewhat incorrect. Their model is incomplete and their logic flawed because they are looking at the wrong things to explain humor. But so many in history went down partial paths too. My book on the psychology of humor (out next year) will convey a better model. Here’s another way of looking at things: how one interprets information (humor) depends on being able to comprehend certain elements of situation that comprise humor. That depends on your mental abilities, your cultural beliefs – which differ significantly between men and women, or immature and the mature, and even deeply religious and non-religious – and certain other factors. Humor a redneck loves might leave a feminist cold.
    Once humor has been recognized internally, whether one expresses that perception to the outside depends in large part on your current emotional state and the external social context. For example, laugh tracks make it more acceptable for some to express perception of humor; and presence of the boss may restrict your expression. A gutbusting obscene joke might die if told in court before a magistrate, but work in a nightclub full of drunks. There are many elements that must exist together for something to be funny, and it is easy for researchers to misunderstand the complexity of the whole.
    The full model is far more complex than I have room here to cover, and I apologize for the brevity.

    — Posted by Bert Kaye

    Intelligent people laugh at humor. Absurd and insecure people laugh to be accepted. There is defiitely a social reason for it. As for gender, courtship warrants a woman and a man laugh at each other’s jokes, laughter is medicine for the soul. I don’t think it ought to be dissected though by class, gender, power etc. It is a gift to each of us for just being human.

    — Posted by cgoerner

    Again, why people think some things are funny and why not is interesting. Too, some things are funnier if people are drunk or stoned. There’s much to be said about the cultural aspects of laughter.

    And then, as Milan Kundera writes in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, there is that laughter…”real laughter – beyond joking, jeering, ridicule. Laughter – delight unbounded, delight delectable, delight of delights…Laughing deeply is living deeply.”

  11. Psharp, I like absurdism, too, but in a novel or part of a greater context than a one line guffaw someone tells. Likewise I find puns and double entendres deeply amusing, but it’s different than what makes me spit out my coffee at my computer screen. Hmm, I think I’ll ponder on why I think some people in the online community are funnier than others, how, why, and when, and recall all the coffee spitting moments, whether they are male or female, etc.

    Thanks for bringing up the matter, Rebecca – I anticipate some funny memories for the rest of the day! :-)

  12. They’re examining one specific element of the context of laughter, but yeah, missing the point a bit.

    Laughter is, among other things, a “stroke”, in the sense of transactional psychology. That accounts for most of its usage in group dynamics as such, as depending on the inflections it can also carry dominance, submission, acceptance, disapproval, etc. That’s where a lot of the laughter these folks are hearing is coming from — people are doing stroke exchanges to reinforce pecking orders and alliance groups.

    Then too, laughter is also a generic release of psychological tension. Sometimes we choose to generate a bit of such tension artificially, just to get at the release. If we do that with a small story constructed for the purpose, we call it a “joke”….

  13. The “tellilng” of the muffin joke seems to be so critical. I’d love to see a video of someone telling it. If you go to my site – – you can upload it and you can tell the whole world about the proper way to tell that joke. You can also tell other jokes you have, but my curiousity has piqued about how this one is told.

  14. These are the only clean jokes I know.

    Two antennas met on a rooftop. They fell in love and got married. It wasn’t much of a ceremony, but the reception was fantastic!

    I went to see a psychiatrist the other day. I said, “I’m having this recurring dream that I’m a dog.” The psychiatrist said, “Get off the couch!”

    A guy goes to his doctor’s office. He says, “I can’t stop singing Delilah.” The doctor thought for a moment and said, “Hmmm. Delilah. I believe you may have Tom Jones’ syndrome.” “Tom Jones’ syndrome?” asked the guy. “Is that very common?” His doctor replied, “It’s Not Unusual.”

    A jumper cable walks into a bar. The bartender says, “I’ll let you stay, but don’t try to start anything.”

  15. Okay, Buck– With no-one around, just reading the words on my screen, your jokes made me laugh out loud.

    As I am not anyone’s “subordinate” here, and as I consider myself to be “intelligent,” I must conclude that these jokes are inherently FUNNY.

  16. Off topic, but I didn’t want to forget: I was cleaning/organizing my favorites and found this link so I can make my “VENUS IS NOT AN UFO” bumper sticker. Didn’t know if Rebecca, O Creative One, had this link – there’s no minimum order, yay!

    I was also thinking about printing snarky M&Ms for Unvalentine’s Day. I’m sort of lazy though. :-/

  17. When I was in college, an anthropology student friend of mine did a paper on humor and gender. Her thesis was that men and women often find different jokes to be funny or un-funny, and when they find the same jokes funny, it is often for different reasons. I wish I still had a copy of the paper so I could post a few examples, but this was back in the typewriter era, so it may be lost to history.

  18. Cain, no such luck. But I know it in German!

    "Wenn ist das nunstuck git und slotermeyer? Ja, beyerhund das oder die flippervald gesprut!"

    Two comments:

    1) If I've spelled anything in that reference incorrectly, I apologize as I did it from memory, which says something about me.

    2) If any of you know of a mistake I've made there, without looking it up, I suppose that says something about you as well…

  19. March 13, 2007 at 1:01 pm, Joshua wrote:

    "We could do it with all sorts of Commonwealther accents. Canadian muffins! Scottish muffins! Welsh muffins! Australian muffins! South African muffins!

    And then we can conduct a scientific poll to determine which accent the joke is funniest in."

    Didn't they already conduct a study that found the Brummie accent to be the funniest?

    But if you're doing accents, I propose including a joke about two croissants with a French accent:

    "It's ketting rrreally 'ot in 'errre, isn't'it?” . . . “Sacre-bleu!! A talking croissant!"

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