The Loh Down On Science

Build a Better Joke

What makes a joke funny?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

Theories on humor abound, but everybody knows you never telegraph the punchline.  Or do you?

In a recent study, researcher Sascha Topolinski found that revealing spoiler words 15 minutes, or even one minute, before the punchline increases its funny quotient. 

He had subjects read jokes on a computer.  Like:  What was the vampire’s last word?  Dawn.  Before people read the joke, a key word from each punchline flashed on the screen for 2 seconds.  Turns out, reading the key word “dawn” a few minutes before the vampire joke made the gag funnier.

It’s all about how we process punchlines.  At first, we’re confused.   Then there’s that moment of recognition.  Then we laugh.  Having a key word revealed in advance actually speeds up recognition. 

Would this technique work at home?  Topolinski says it already does.  People often take words from conversations and weave them into jokes.

Important tip:  You need at least a minute between the key word and vampire the punchline. Timing is . . . dawn!  Ech, back to the lab.

***** For more 90-SECOND SCIENCE FACTS, click here.*****

The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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