What makes a pun funny? If you said "nothing," then you should probably skip this post. But even admirers of puns recognize that while some are sublime, others are ... well, not.
Over the last year, I've been asking people to rate funniness of just over 2300 different puns. (Where did I get 2300 puns? The user-submitted site PunoftheDay. PunoftheDay also has funniness ratings, but I wanted a bit more control over how the puns were rated and who rating them.).
Why care what makes puns funny?
There are three reasons I ran this experiment. I do mostly basic research, and while I believe in its importance and think it's fun, the idea of doing a project I could actually explain to relatives was appealing. I was partly inspired by Zenzi Griffin's 2009 CUNY talk reporting a study she ran on why parents call their kids by the wrong names (typically, calling younger children by elder children's names), work which has now been published in a book chapter.
Plus, I was just interested. I mean: puns!
Finally, I was beginning a line of work on the interpretation of homophones. One of the best-established facts about homophones is that we very rapidly suppress context-irrelevant meanings of words -- in fact, so rapidly that we rarely even notice. If your friend said, "I'm out of money, so I'm going to stop by the bank," would you really even notice considering that bank might mean the side of a river?
A river bank.
photo: Istvan, creative commons
A successful pun, on the other hand, requires that at least two meanings be accessed and remain active. In some sense, a pun is homophone processing gone bad. By better understanding puns, I thought I might get some insight into language processing.
As already mentioned, my first step down this road was to collect funniness ratings for a whole bunch of puns. I popped them into a Flash survey, called it Puntastic, and put it on the Games With Words website. The idea was to mine the data and try to find patterns which could then be systematically manipulated in subsequent experiments.
It turns out that there are a lot of ways that 2300 puns can be measured and categorized. So while I have a few ideas I want to try out, no doubt many of the best ones have not occurred to me. Data collection was crowdsourced, and I see no reason why the analyses shouldn't be as well.
I have posted the data on my website. If you have some ideas about what might make one pun funnier than another -- or just want to play around with the data -- you are welcome to it. Please post your findings here.
If you are a researcher and might use the data in an official publication, please contact me directly before beginning analysis (gameswithwords$at*gmail.com) just so there aren't misunderstandings down the line. Failure to get permission to publish analyses of these data may be punished by extremely bad karma and/or nasty looks cast your way at conferences.
The results so far...
Unfortunately for the crowd, I've already done the easiest analyses. The following are based on nearly 800 participants over the age of 13 who listed English as both their native and primary languages (there weren't enough non-native English speakers to conduct meaningful analyses on their responses).
The average was 2.6 stars out of 7 (participants could choose anywhere from 1 to 7 stars, as well as "I don't get it," which was scored as -1 for these analyses), which says something either about the puns I used or the people who rated them.
First I looked at differences between participants to see if I could find types of people who like puns more than others. There was no significant difference in overall ratings by men or women.
I also asked participants if they thought they had good or poor social skills. There was no significant difference there, either.
I also asked them in they had difficulty reading or if they had ever been diagnosed with any psychiatric illnesses, but neither of those factors had any significant effect either (got tired of making graphs, so just trust me on this one).
The effect of age was unclear.
It was the case that the youngest participants produced lower ratings than the older participants (p=.0029), which was significant even after a conservative Bonferroni correction for 15 possible pairwise comparisons (alpha=.0033). However, the 10-19 year-olds' ratings were also significantly lower than the 20-29 year-olds' (p=.0014) and the 30-39 year-olds' (p=.0008), but obviously this was not true of the 40-49 year-olds' or 50-59 year-olds' ratings. So it's not clear what to make of that. Given that the overall effect size was small and that this is an exploratory analysis, I wouldn't make much of the effect without corroboration from an independent data set.
The funniest puns
The only factor I've looked at so far that might explain pun funniness is the length of the joke. I considered only the 2238 puns for which I had at least 5 ratings (which was most of them). I asked whether there might be a relationship between the length of the pun and how funny it was. I could imagine this going either way, with concise jokes being favored (short and sweet) or long jokes having a better lead-up (the shaggy dog effect). In fact, the correlation between pun ratings and length in terms of number of characters (r=.05) or in terms of number of words (r=.05) were both so small I didn't bother to do significance tests.
I broke up the puns into five groups according to length to see if maybe there was a bimodal effect (shortest and longest jokes are funniest) or a Goldilocks effect (average-length jokes are best). There wasn't.
In short, I can't tell you anything about what makes some people like puns more than others, or why people like some puns more than others. What I can tell you is which puns people did or didn't like. Here are the top 5 and bottom 5 puns:
1. He didn't tell his mother that he ate some glue. His lips were sealed.
2. Cartoonist found dead in home. Details are sketchy.
3. Biologists have recently produced immortal frogs by removing their vocal cords. They can't croak.
4. The frustrated cannibal threw up his hands.
5. Can Napoleon return to his place of birth? Of Corsican.
2234. The Egyptian cinema usherette sold religious icons in the daytime. Sometimes she got confused and called out, 'Get your choc isis here!'
2235. Polly the senator's parrot swallowed a watch.
2236. Two pilgrims were left behind after their diagnostic test came back positive.
2237. In a baseball season, a pitcher is worth a thousands blurs.
2238. He said, "Hones', that is the truth', but I knew elide.
Ten points to anyone who can even figure out what those five puns are about. Mostly participants rated this as "I don't get it."
BTW Please don't take from this discussion that there hasn't been any serious studies of puns. There have been a number, going back at least as far as Sapir of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, who wrote a paper on "Two Navaho Puns." There is a well-known linguistics paper by Zwicky & Zwicky and at least one computer model that generates its own puns. However, I know a lot less about this literature than I would like to, so if there are any experts in the audience, please feel free to send me links.