The World's Oldest Documented Joke

AJ Jacobs, an American journalist and author, recently looked into the world’s oldest joke. His research surfaced a written joke from Bronze Age Sumeria, circa 1900 B.C..  

Here’s the joke:
What has never happened since time immemoriam?
A young wife has not farted on her husband's lap.

A fart joke; I should have guessed. From his research, it seems lowbrow jokes are the only ones that were written down and preserved.

To find out if ancient Greek jokes are funny to a modern audience he even had Jim Gaffigan put them to the test on stage at Gotham Theatre. I bet you can’t guess how that turned out. Check out the full piece on NPR right here.

It makes me wonder what jokes from the modern age will hold up or still do hold up with audiences. And what does that say about our shifting values? I can imagine a study where we curate a series of top rated comedian’s jokes about a set of social issues and then study whether and how much our values have shifted over the last few decades.

Laura AllcornComment
Can Humor Increase Your Status At Work?

I’m consistently surprised by how little research has been done in the field of humor, specifically its positive effects on our lives and behavior. Though, this new study from the Wharton School of Business entitled, Risky Business: When Humor Increases and Decreases Status, suggests that when humor is used appropriately at work, it increases your status. But if you tell an inappropriate or bad joke it will backfire and likely decrease your status. This isn’t a shocking scientific discovery, but interestingly they found that whether you tell a bad joke or a good joke it still increases your perceived confidence.

They also suggest that those who effectively use humor could even influence other people’s behaviors. In this interview, one of the authors of the study, T. Bradford Bitterly said, “One of the conclusions that I found particularly surprising was in our second study we found that someone who effectively used humor, they were not only perceived to be more confident, competent and higher in status, they were even more likely to be elected as a group leader for a subsequent task. So here we see humor not only influencing perceptions of one another, but even influencing behavior.”

So if your sights are set on a leadership role, it might be time to take a comedy class. Check out the details of the full study here.

Can You Teach An AI How To Recognize Visual Comedy?

A recent study from Virginia Tech tackled this very question. Their study is called We Are Humor Beings: Understanding and Predicting Visual Humor

According to this MIT Technology Review,  "Arjun Chandrasekaran from Virginia Tech and pals say they’ve trained a machine-learning algorithm to recognize humorous scenes and even to create them. They say their machine can accurately predict when a scene is funny and when it is not, even though it knows nothing of the social context of what it is seeing." 

They started by utilizing Amazon's Mechanical Turk service to create and amass 6,400 funny and unfunny scenes using a clip art program. For the funny scene submissions, they also asked for a one sentence description describing why the scene was funny. Then, they asked the AMT's to rate the level of funniness in each scene.

Above are some scenes from their study. The scene submissions led them to ask whether or not the funny object could be replaced by a similar, but unfunny counterpart in an attempt to home in on the semantics of humor. So they had AMT's create 15,000 alternatives to the funny scenes.

According to the study, the algorithm is relatively good at predicting the funniness of a scene. It finds that animate objects like people and animals tend to lead to a funnier scene than say inanimate objects. 

These studies still make me wonder if we know enough about what makes something funny to tell if the machine really gets humor. The MIT Technology Review really captures this by saying, "Of course, an important question is what exactly the machine is learning to do. In this work, funniness may be a proxy for something else entirely. Indeed, if Chandrasekaran and co’s paper were rewritten with every instance of the word “funniness” replaced with the word “oddness” or “incongruity” or “unexpectedness,” the results would be no less valid."

Still, this is one of the most fascinating studies I've read in the field of computational humor. I look forward to contributing to the discussion by conducting my own comedy AI experiment soon.