Iain Murray: Laugh and the world might be eaten from the inside

Humour may not be particle physics, but the study of jocularity has been taken up by a university professor who hopes to find the world’s best joke, says Iain Murray

By the narrowest of squeaks this column avoids being devoted to Frenchmen for the third week running.

That it came so close was because of the extraordinary outburst by Shirley “Superwoman” Conran, who urged all her sister English females to stop having babies for ten years because there were insufficient facilities for mothers in this country. The existence of such a shortage is a legitimate matter for debate, though her proposed remedy seems extreme. But it was what she said next that caused the brow to furrow and the eyes to pop. She said: “Very well”, or words to that effect, “If you really must have children, marry a Frenchman.”

How extraordinary. Why of all the nationalities available to broody English womanhood, should the French be singled out as uniquely suitable? As we have noted over the past couple of weeks, Frenchmen are peculiarly accident prone, especially when engaged in DIY, and liable to stay in bed at other times. So should the flower of English pulchritude turn its thoughts to procreation and yearn mysteriously for the strong embrace of an idle botcher, it need look no further than the shores of Blighty – home to generations of cack-handed layabouts.

Hang on, though. Might it be possible that Ms Conran is essaying a joke? Though there is little in her record or her writing to suggest a taste for humour – Superwoman, though widely acclaimed at the time, was short on gags, and the novels that followed, though funny in parts were, I think, unintentionally so – could it be that she is having us on?

Which brings us to this week’s subject, and one in which marketing folk are expert: the joke. It’s in the news because a psychologist has launched the world’s biggest investigation into humour. Dr Richard Wiseman, of the University of Hertford – itself a practical pleasantry – has devised Laugh Lab, a website aimed at uncovering the best-loved joke.

People are invited to submit jokes and rate other people’s using a “laughometer”.

Unfortunately, the entire experiment is flawed from the start because of Dr Wiseman’s insistence on a form of censorship. He has assigned to a 19-year-old student the task of screening incoming jestful material for sexual innuendo, racial content and offensiveness, which by my reckoning rules out some 90 per cent of the best jokes ever minted. An entire genre is devoted to Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotsmen; jokes that start with a man walking into a chemist’s shop, of which there are many, or involve a lady contortionist, will contain more sexual innuendo than you can shake a stick at; as for offensiveness, what is humour without subversiveness?

Dr Wiseman is not, however, a very observant fellow. If he were, he would realise that humour is all around him. He is steeped in it. He doesn’t need a website, or a laughometer, he needs only to look and listen while his fellow scientists expound.

Fittingly, he announced his experiment at the British Association’s annual festival in Glasgow, the largest regular gathering of comedians under one roof since the heyday of the Windmill. Out they come, once a year, from their laboratories and their research centres, these white-coated, dome-headed boffins, to spread before our startled eyes the fruits of their labours. They may take themselves seriously, but to the world at large they are a barrel of laughs.

For instance, have you heard the one about the killer plasma that is ready to devour the Earth? It was dreamt up by Dr Benjamin Allanach at the European particle laboratory and it goes something like this. In Long Island, New York state, there is giant heavy iron collider, a machine 2.4 miles long, that is used to investigate “quark gluon plasma”. If the experiments go wrong, says Dr Allanach, they could release a particle called a “killer strangelet”.

He says: “It would eat our planet from the inside out”, (Like Dickens’ Fat Boy, he wants to make our flesh creep.) “It would convert the Earth into one giant strangelet, killing us all in the process.” Ho ho.

So that’s how we are to go. Neither with a bang, nor with a whimper either, but eaten by a giant American strangelet.

“Rubbish!” cries a voice from the back. It is Dr Duncan Smith, reader in space technology at the University of Salford – another joke, fashioned on the same lines as the University of Hertfordshire. We are not going to be devoured from within by a strangelet, he scoffs. No, we are going to be bludgeoned to death by Hermes, a half-mile wide rock that almost collided with the Earth in 1937 and has since disappeared. The doctor says: “It could come back and hit us at any time”. And when it does, boy, will we know about it. It will cause a global catastrophe killing half of mankind. And giving the other half a nasty headache. Hah hah.

Before Hermes strikes, try a little oxytocin, a hormone under investigation by Professor Gareth Leng of Edinburgh University. He injected some into a prairie vole, prompting the animal to copulate with its mate for 24 hours non-stop.

We must leave it there. No more may be said on the ground that it would lead us, as surely as punchline follows preamble, into the forbidden territory of sexual innuendo.

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