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Abseiler on hoarding

(Photograph) - A funny thing happened on the way to work today. I was walking down the road when all of a sudden I looked up and there was a big poster of Eddie Murphy looking though his legs. And just as I was passing by, this guy, right, I think he had been cleaning the windows or something, was hanging down on a rope right between his legs and Eddie Murphy was looking right at him, as if to say, get off of my ass, punk! It was really funny. I guess you had to be there.

That's the trouble with visual jokes - they don't travel well. They don't work too well on radio, either. If you can't see the joke, you won't get it. And to "get" a joke you have to understand the language. If you don't speak the language you don't get the joke. Next time you meet a non-English speaker, try telling the one about the man who walked into a bar - it was an iron bar, ouch! - and see if it raises a laugh.

But, like the lowest common denominator in the Eurocurrency of crassness, visual humour crosses continents. How else do you explain the international success of Benny Hill, the universal appeal of all those programmes showing home video mishaps, or the hero worship accorded Norman Wisdom in Albania?

And it appeals to all ages. Before they understand language, babies will laugh at silly faces, and their desire to please this primitive instinct turns parents into clowns. My grandad, who was 87 when he passed away, liked nothing better in his retirement than putting his feet up in front of a few episodes of Tom and Jerry. He didn't die laughing but he had a good try. In a not very funny way, this poster, advertising the Eddie Murphy film Nutty Professor II, is a kind o tribute to all that.

The original Nutty Professor was a 1963 film starring Jerry Lewis - an accident-prone goofball actor who was the American equivalent of Norman Wisdom. In 1996, Eddie Murphy's remake won back fans after a series of box-office flops. By the time they made this, the sequel to the remake, the joke was wearing a bit thin. But the abseiling man makes it funny because he seems to have surprised the comedian like a Lilliputian interloper.

Academics who study the humorous workings of the human mind refer to this kind of jokey juxtaposition as "incongruity resolution". The godfather of psychology, Sigmund Freud, started it. His rib-tickling treatise Jokes and Their Relation to the Subconscious defined a joke as "a playful communication without moral implication whereby an image implanted in the audience's mind is twisted with utmost brevity to reveal unforeseen consequences, thereby triggering an involuntary reaction".

This set the tone for earnest investigation of the mechanics of mirth. But, funnily enough, academics have never figured out what makes people laugh.

Thankfully, a sense of humour can't be learned from a book and there's no sure-fire formula for jokes. Don't ask why. Because the moment you start wondering about why something is funny, then it isn't funny any more. If it makes you laugh, it's funny. That's all, folks.

Photograph by Stefan Hesse


Academic papers on humour www.uni-duesseldorf.deWWW MathNatRuchhumor.html Eddie Murphy biography http:mrshowbiz.go.compeopleeddiemurphycontentBio.html Site of legendary British stand-up venue commouth.html

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