In the 1975 movie "The Sunshine Boys," an aging vaudeville comedian explains a classic truism of comedy to his nephew: The "k" sound is always funny.
"Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny," says the comedian, played by Walter Matthau. "Alka-Seltzer is funny. You say 'Alka-Seltzer,' you get a laugh... Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny... Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then there's chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny."
And it's true! If you need a place name for a punchline, you're guaranteed to kill with Kalamazoo, Schenectady or Rancho Cucamonga. But why? Psychology professor Chris Westbury at the University of Alberta has a fascinating theory, and it's based on perhaps the two unfunniest words in the English language: statistical probability.
Westbury published a paper in October 2018 in the Journal of Experimental Psychology with the first-rate title, "Wriggly, squiffy, lummox, and boobs: What makes some words funny?" In it, he started with a list of the 5,000 English words rated funniest by real humans and constructed a working mathematical model for predicting the laugh factor of nearly every word in the dictionary.
When Westbury applied his model to a dataset of 45,516 English words, it decided that these 10 words were the funniest of all: "upchuck, bubby, boff, wriggly, yaps, giggle, cooch, guffaw, puffball, and jiggly." Runners-up included "squiffy, flappy and bucko" and the perennial favorites of every 8-year-old on the planet: "poop, puke and boobs." On the other end of the spectrum, the word found to be the absolute least funny was "harassment."
In his paper, Westbury explains that philosophers have been trying to unravel the mystery of humor for millennia. Plato and Aristotle weren't big fans of humor, seeing it mostly as a way of denigrating and feeling superior to others. Cicero introduced "incongruity theory," writing that "the most common kind of joke [is when we] expect one thing and another is said; in which case our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh."
While the incongruity theory of comedy makes perfect sense — even orangutans find switcheroo tricks high-larious — Westbury says it's not a true scientific "theory" in that clearly not every incongruous event is as funny as another. A random coughing fit in a crowded movie theater isn't nearly as comical as a random farting fit. (I mean, just try to say "random farting fit" without smiling.) So the goal of Westbury's modeling experiments was to go beyond philosophical theorizing and come up with a truly quantifiable scale of funny.