Often times, such as orientation day at college, a person designated to “break the ice” between a group of strangers will ask, “What’s the funniest joke you know?” or “What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you?” Many e-mail chains also enlist the superlative of “funniest” in order to describe the necessity of reading such an e-mail chain, despite a lack of any necessity whatsoever. Even now, there are researchers that study humor trying to find the working parts behind what make people laugh, trying to find what’s funny versus what’s funnier versus, undoubtedly, what’s funniest. They’re called the Humor Code, by the way.
There is, however, no such thing as the funniest joke ever. In fact, the funniest comedian, movie, TV show, sketch, improv team, celebrity, columnist, dinosaur, and more are things that don’t really exist.
Many superlatives are subjective. For example, picking the best (or funniest) dinosaur isn’t going to work, despite what Dan Telfer says and how convincingly he says it:
First and foremost, comedy is subjective. That’s a given. Yet, people seem to think that what’s funny to them is objectively funny. But the dynamic of what someone laughs at goes much deeper, making it difficult — impossible — to determine what’s funniest.
People have differing definitions of comedy. For instance, upon watching Andy Kaufman sing the same lyric over and over again, many people in the audience that fateful night must have thought, “This is not comedy,” because they didn’t find it funny. Watching it one degree removed, however, you might find the prank being pulled pretty damn funny.
Just because something isn’t funny to one person does not mean it’s not comedy. Actually, the fact that it was done with the intention of being comedy is the main prerequisite to being labeled comedy. Serial killers, a very tiny percentage of the general population, probably laugh at the sight of a haphazardly placed pile of dead bodies where other people would be horrified and in tears no matter which way the bodies were piled, but that doesn’t make it comedy.
What makes a person laugh, and, consequently, their definitions of comedy, are derived from their identity. Personal experience, beliefs, mores, conviction to those beliefs and mores, and so on and so forth all factor into whether a person will laugh at a specific set of stimuli. Many fans of comedian Doug Stanhope, for example, are, more likely than not to identify themselves as more than casual drinkers, backers of many libertarian ideals, and as staunchly committed to tell any form of authority, in so many words, “to go fuck itself.”
While many would call Stanhope out for thinly veiling being on a soapbox with humor, others might claim it was the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. Those same people would probably disagree with another person who claimed that Brian Regan was the funniest comedian they ever saw. Maybe you have already come to this conclusion, but there is no objectively correct person in this situation. Both Stanhope and Regan make people laugh heartily for a good living, just like oft-despised Dane Cook does. Yet, fans of all three are, most likely, comprised of vastly different personal histories, religious and political affiliations, and whether they went to their prom and enjoyed it or not.
The collective experiences of a group of people can be twisted into humor through the context of a one-liner or an absurdist character monologue. Yet, the bigger the collective experience that one tries to make fun of, the broader the humor. That’s an obvious statement, but an important one. Many multiplex-bound comedies are aware of this dynamic, which is why they, in the process of their development, take into account the sensitivities of specific demographics that might potentially pay to see the movie. As a result, broad comedies like Horrible Bosses get made, but never receive the type of accolade that a more niché based movie such as Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris has gotten.
Arguably the broadest instance of humor that makes people laugh the world over is a guy getting kicked in the nuts. Thousands, if not millions, of videos populate the bandwidth of YouTube because people are so obsessed with someone getting hit in the nuts and their subsequent rolling around on the floor, curled up like a baby. Still, no one would ever call that the funniest thing they had ever seen.
Based on a person’s life, the funniest thing that someone has experienced in some form or another is probably an event that they could not reliably describe to such a degree where it would be as funny to other people as it was to them. For me, the funniest thing I’ve come across in my life would have to be when my family got lost in Europe looking for an abbey that no longer existed. That may or may not be funny to you, but if you were me and knew how much of a history buff my dad is and how impatient my mom is, along with no one being able to speak the same language, much less English, in addition to me being the contrarian teenager that I was at the time, only then would you begin to know how funny the whole situation was. I cannot stop laughing to this very day about realizing that the oldest abbey in Europe did not sell DVDs of WWII movies in their gift shop because we were, in fact, not at the oldest abbey in Europe.
Now that we’ve dispelled the myth of the funniest thing ever, take the time to do the world a service and stop forwarding “funny” e-mail chains.