The following is an excerpt of Funny: The Book by David Misch (Applause Books).
In 2002, Richard Wiseman, intriguingly named, of the University of Hertfordshire, set up a website called LaughLab, where people from all over the world could submit and rate jokes, the idea being to find the one that worked for the most people in the most countries. He received forty thousand entries (of which two-thirds were too racist, violent, or dirty to print).
The winner—later discovered to be based on a 1951 sketch written by Spike Milligan for the famed British radio series The Goon Show—was submitted by a psychiatrist named Gurpal Gosall, whose name may be funnier than the joke.
Two guys are hunting in the woods when one suddenly falls to the ground, and it looks like he’s not breathing. The other guy takes out his cell and calls 911: “My friend is dead. What should I do?”
Operator: “Okay, I can help. First we have to make sure he’s dead . . .”
There’s silence, a gunshot, then the guy comes back on the line: “Okay, now what?”
In second place was this:
Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go camping. They pitch their tent under the stars and go to sleep. In the middle of the night, Holmes wakes his friend and says: “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”
Watson: “I see millions and millions of stars.”
Holmes: “And what do you deduce from that?”
Watson: “Well, if there are millions of stars, and if even a few of those stars have planets, then it’s quite likely there are planets like Earth out there. And if there are planets like Earth, there could also be life.”
Holmes: “No, you idiot, it means someone stole our tent.”
Both of these demonstrate the importance of “precise ambiguity.” Take the hunters: It looks like he’s not breathing—kinda vague, right? But it has to be; the punchline depends on our not knowing if the guy’s dead. You have to say it looks like he’s not breathing because it’s what’s not said that sets up the punchline.
Holmes and Watson also rely on an equivocal phrase: Look up at the sky and tell me what you see. For the joke to work, the listener has to either have forgotten the beginning, which had Holmes and Watson pitching their tent under the stars; or when Watson says I see millions of stars, the listener thinks instantly, subconsciously, “Wait, aren’t they in a tent? Oh, David probably just said it wrong, not important, wait, David’s still talking, I better listen . . .”
Funny: The Book is an entertaining look at the art of comedy, from its historical roots to the latest scientific findings, with diversions into the worlds of movies (Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers), television (The Office), prose (Woody Allen, Robert Benchley), theater (The Front Page), jokes and stand-up comedy (Richard Pryor, Steve Martin), as well as personal reminiscences from the author’s experiences on such TV programs as Mork and Mindy.