Is anything universally funny? To be clear, we’re talking just Earth, here. Everyone knows those grumpy non-folks in the Pleiades star cluster never laugh. So let’s rephrase: is anything considered funny across all cultures on this planet? Ugh, it’s so much easier to just ask: is anything universally funny. So we’ll go with that while we try to come up with an answer, and to Hades with those Pleaides peeps.
Oh, but where to begin? We suppose if something is universally funny, then that must mean humor is a pervasive trait that all people have and that it always has been one. In which case, Darwin might be able to help us. After all, he was always at the front of the class with his hand held higher than everyone else even though he knew the teacher was getting tired of him, too. So let’s check…yes, here’s something…hmmmm….intersesing, very interesting. Yes, here it is: “The Works of Charles Darwin, Volume 23: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals.” Good grief! Could the man be any more sexist or long winded? Jeesh!
Anyway, he does talk about humor. Kind of. Here’s what he says: “The imagination is sometimes said to be tickled by a ludicrous idea; and this so-called tickling of the mind is curiously analogous with that of the body. Every one knows how immoderately children laugh, and how their whole bodies are convulsed, when they are tickled. The anthropoid apes, as we have seen, likewise utter a reiterated sound, corresponding with our own laughter, when they are tickled especially under the armpits.”
Well, while know-it-all Darwin may have had a vocabulary that included “anthropoid,” what he apparently didn’t know is that gorillas, chimpanzees, and other apes actually engage in social laughter. You don’t have to sneak in and tickle under their arms. Perhaps that’s because his britches never spontaneously dropped in front of their cage at the zoo.
Regardless, that kind of sounds like there’s something innate in us that makes us find things funny. Which kind of sounds like humor is universal. So if humor is universal, then that must mean certain jokes are universal, right?
Maybe not. We’re not sure. But, we do know of a couple of dudes who might be able to clarify for us. Journalist Joel Warner and psychology professor Peter McGraw travelled around the world, doing experiments (and probably drinking lots of beer), with the sole intent of figuring out what’s funny and what’s not. Their results are chronicled in their book, “The Humor code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.”
What they discovered (aside from the fact that dumb blonde jokes are told around the globe) is that the more “safe” and general a joke is, the more people like it—the more universal it is. Likewise, the edgier it is, the fewer the people who like it. Hence, the world’s funniest joke isn’t very funny—but it’s something that offends nearly no one. (In case you’re wondering, it was submitted by Gurpal Gosall, a psychiatrist who’d heard it many times in medical school, and it goes like this: A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes have rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his mobile phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator, in a soothing voice, says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy’s voice comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?“)
The question remains, do monkeys laugh when they hear it?