The Best Jokes are Hardest to Recall

If you can't remember exactly how a joke goes, it is probably a winner. From the Sunday Times (UK):

Scientists have found that the most successful gags work by subverting the listener’s usual thought patterns, making them inherently less memorable. By contrast, clichéd jokes are easier to remember because their structure and punch line are so predictable.

Experts say this over and over: If you want to be funny, surprise the audience. The full article is good, as is a "related article" titled So a Gay, Blind Suicide Bomber Walks Into a Bar… in which the author says jokes about physical or mental disabilities "are the real howlers these days. And that’s because the disability lobby has become so preternaturally sensitive, so disposed towards pouncing on anything which might be construed as disablist."

A couple years ago I thought hard about humor in the business world — here are the notes from the Junto conversation we had on the topic. Everyone at the lunch agreed that the most effective executives deftly use humor to get ahead professionally. I am especially impressed when I see executives use humor to defuse tense situations.

Recently I've been contemplating how I can integrate more humor into my writing. In particular, on this blog.

My humor in-person tends to be kinesthetic, and strong on sarcasm, irony, feux-pretentiousness, storytelling, and exaggeration. These things are easier done when you have the advantage of body language and tone of voice. In writing, it's harder to do sarcasm effectively, for instance, because people can mis-interpret it or mis-understand your point.

A blog is especially hard because it can be read by anyone. Aren't you funnier when you're at a table with three other people rather than a dinner party with twenty? When audience grows, the chance you're going to offend someone or riffle some idiosyncratic feathers goes up. We're more risk averse.

This is why I'm especially envious when I read a blog that is consistently funny. So at the least, I'd like to make this blog more reflective of my in-person humor sensibilities, even if I am not a witty enough writer (a la Michael Kinsley or David Brooks) to pump out daily the subtle, wry humor that succeeds best in this medium.

Other random thoughts:

  • Recently a friend asked if I could send him my resume. To this point we were talking in serious tones. I replied, "Bitch, I ain't got no resume," in my best ghetto voice (AAU basketball will do it to you). It was funny because it was unexpected.
  • It's good to have a few go-to stories in your back pocket for in-person humor. I have a Chuck Norris story/joke that is a sure winner.
  • Think about your sources. So much of humor is taking other people's material and slightly iterating on it. My sources include my brothers (who send me stuff every day), Seinfeld, movies (Old School and Wedding Crashers, for example), The Onion, and talking to my funny friends as much as possible.
  • Here's my humor tag on delicious. It is my most popular tag with 280 items. Here are blog posts in the Humor category.
14 comments on “The Best Jokes are Hardest to Recall
  • To do humour is harder on the blog not because of the numbers that read but also because of the variations in the sense of humour. In our own close circle, we have a fairly good idea about which joke will be appreciated by whom and which one will fall flat. The variations may also be cultural e.g. I don’t find much American humour remotely funny. I find it hard to believe people like Raymond and Two & a Half Men, but Frasier and Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm I find hilarious.

    The second reason could be that subtlety is harder to communicate and very contextual, and much humour is subtle. On a blog, sarcasm and irony are always lost (and I notice, you are no fan of smileys either, just like me). Subtle points may also be lost because people have varying abilities in the same language. Y’day in a discussion, Amartya Sen, Vikram Seth, Ramachandra Guha and Nandan Nilekani spent much time discussing why they write in English when they are Indians with a varying range of languages available to them (only Professor Sen is a polyglot though). They all write in English but as they spoke it was evident whose intimacy with the language is more pronounced and deeper (no comments!). Amartya Sen raised the most laughs by the way.

    Fleeting attention spans of visitors/ readers also make it hard to communicate humour on blogs. This is not the case with books or other columnist/ opinionista writing, I feel. So blogs somehow become the vessel of ha-ha humour but not any other kind. Dommage!

    Of course what I find funny, you may not and vice versa. I do multilingual puns for instance. But I refrain from them on my blogs because I don’t want to waste a good punch line. In person it is a different matter. I know who speaks what languages and can unleash the fury in full force.

    PS: Here you go – another judgement. I like reading your blog because I can see your commitment to committing to keyboard what you experience and want to share. That is admirable indeed, and I always go away from here enthused to do more of the same. 🙂

  • Bitch, you ain’t got no humor.

    But seriously, I totally agree. I’m a funny guy, but putting it out there in words is tough because you don’t get to read their facial expression and push the joke a little further to make sure they “get it.”

    It’s funny when you try to be funny and bomb. But do that in writing and it just feels awkward.

    When I was growing up (in another country), I was hilarious. The class clown. Then I came to the US for college and the humor just didn’t translate. I was like, “If I’m not the funny guy anymore, what am I?” It was a bit of an identity crisis.

    But fear not. As you can see, I’ve mastered the skill of being funny in English.

  • So long as Man is predestined to have free will, humorist can never be sure of the effect. Writing humor is hard not because of literary or conjectural inadequacy of the writer, it’s because evoking laughter isn’t exactly easy. First off, the writer has to write something hilarious, not just spew half-baked literary trash and expect others to waste time reading it. Laughter is a long way off. Most bloggers don’t really write, they manage to put together words. That’s ok so long as they recognize they are upstarts, but down a few posts, they tend to get presumptuous and delude themselves to be mature writers. Anyways absence of QC in blogosphere breeds such delusions. Humor writing is serious business and calls for a high degree of creativity and imagination. The writer has to plumb deep enough into a context, extract rare perspectives and then recreate the experience for the reader before it can pass for humor. Till then, bloggers will continue to suck and that’s ok because if the world didn’t suck, we’d all fall off. Meanwhile, delusions can and should wait.

  • Very well put, Krishna: “The writer has to plumb deep enough into a context,
    extract rare perspectives and then recreate the experience for the reader
    before it can pass for humor.”

  • Just in case my comment is gone forever, I was trying to recommend Dr. Boli’s blog ( as one of the most consistently funny and quirky blogs I’ve ever seen.

    Especially good are his “Encyclopedia of Misinformation” entries, such as this one:


    Supplement No. 2.

    Dime. A dime is actually worth $0.09974, but must businesses round the value up to $0.10 for the sake of convenience.

    Flight. Humans can actually fly for considerable distances without any special appliances or training, but not horizontally.

    Goldfinches. In spite of their brilliant coloring, goldfinches are not truly made of gold, but rather of pinchbeck, a cheap alloy.

    Mathematics. Mathematicians have spread the false rumor that it is impossible to divide by zero in order to keep to themselves the dangerous knowledge that 0=1.

    Mushrooms. Every mushroom that grows in one hemisphere of the earth is counterbalanced by an equal and opposite mushroom in the opposite hemisphere.

    Rorschach test. It is a little-known fact of psychological history that Rorschach consistently failed his own test.

  • OK, one link and the comment showed up. I’ve seen Typepad block comments with a few links before, though.

  • But than again, humor is very idiosyncratic . . . what one person thinks is hysterical can leave another person unaffected.

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