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# Researchers Have Developed a Mathematical Method For Identifying Certain Kinds of Humor

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A group of researchers at the University of Alberta have developed what may be the first mathematical theory of humor, all thanks to a funny-sounding nonsense word: snunkoople.

Psychology professor Chris Westbury was studying people with aphasia, a disorder affecting language comprehension, when he noticed something strange. Subjects were asked to read strings of letters and identify whether they were real words. After a while, Westbury noticed subjects seemed to laugh at certain nonsense words—snunkoople in particular.

Intrigued, Westbury quickly got to work on a theory of humor: He hypothesized that nonsense words with unpredictable letter combinations would generally be considered funnier than those with predictable letter combinations. Translating this theory into mathematical terms, Westbury argued that lower entropy words (uncommon letter combinations) were seen as funnier than higher entropy words (predictable letter combinations). The low entropy non-word finglam is funnier than the high entropy non-word clester, for instance.

“We did show, for example, that Dr. Seuss—who makes funny non-words—made non-words that were predictably lower in entropy. He was intuitively making lower-entropy words when he was making his non-words,” Westbury explained in a statement. “It essentially comes down to the probability of the individual letters. So if you look at a Seuss word like yuzz-a-ma-tuzz and calculate its entropy, you would find it is a low-entropy word because it has improbable letters like Z.”

Westbury put his theory to the test, asking subjects first to select the funnier of two non-words, and second to rank non-words on a scale of 1 to 100. He found that it was easy to predict which words would be considered the funniest. In general, subjects tended to choose lower entropy words as the most humorous, and in one case, a subject chose “correctly” 92 percent of the time.

"The further the non-word is from being a word, the funnier it is," Westbury explains in the video below. "It shows that people are doing an unconscious calculation, and the way they're doing that unconscious probability calculation is using emotion. When people say, 'This word is funny,' they're going on their gut feeling, going, 'It feels funny to me.' And we're showing that that feeling is a kind of probability calculation."

While Westbury’s funny word formula is certainly fascinating, he himself admits it’s a little bit limited. The theory explains one aspect of what makes nonsense words humorous and reveals what seems to be an underlying law behind one form of humor. However, it misses other forms of phonological humor (alliteration, rhymes within words, and so on) and, of course, has little to say about more sophisticated semantic forms of humor like puns and wordplay. Westbury says, “Humour is not one thing. Once you start thinking about it in terms of probability, then you start to understand how we find so many different things funny. And the many ways in which things can be funny.”

[h/t: Science Daily]

Hulton Archive, Getty Images
15 Funny Quips from Great American Humorists
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

The art of social satire is a tough one, but a great humorist's keen observations, witticisms, and turns of phrase continue to ring true even decades later. "Humor is something that thrives between man's aspirations and his limitations," the musical comedian Victor Borge once noted. "There is more logic in humor than in anything else. Because, you see, humor is truth." (In other words, it's funny 'cause it's true.) Here are 15 more quips from some of America's most astute commentators.

#### 1. MARK TWAIN (1835-1910)

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"Familiarity breeds contempt—and children."

#### 2. DOROTHY PARKER (1893-1967)

Evening Standard, Getty Images

"That would be a good thing for them to cut on my tombstone: Wherever she went, including here, it was against her better judgment."

#### 3. JAMES THURBER (1894-1961)

Fred Palumbo, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"Last night I dreamed of a small consolation enjoyed only by the blind: Nobody knows the trouble I've not seen!"

#### 4. NORA EPHRON (1941-2012)

Stephen Lovekin, Getty Images

"Summer bachelors, like summer breezes, are never as cool as they pretend to be."

#### 5. GORE VIDAL (1925-2012)

Central Press, Getty Images

"The four most beautiful words in our common language: I told you so."

#### 6. ARTEMUS WARD (1834-1867)

TCS 1.3788, Harvard Theatre Collection, Harvard University, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"They drink with impunity, or anybody who invites them."

#### 7. GERTRUDE STEIN (1874-1946)

Hulton Archive, Getty Images

"The thing that differentiates man from animals is money."

#### 8. FRANKLIN PIERCE ADAMS (1881-1960)

Harris & Ewing Collection, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"Nothing is more responsible for the good old days than a bad memory."

#### 9. ETHEL WATERS (1896-1977)

William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"All the men in my life have been two things: an epic and an epidemic."

#### 10. ROBERT BENCHLEY (1889-1945)

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"Drinking makes such fools of people, and people are such fools to begin with that it's compounding a felony."

#### 11. AMBROSE BIERCE (1842-1914)

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"Saint: A dead sinner revised and edited."

#### 12. MAE WEST (1893-1980)

Hulton Archive, Getty Images

"When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I've never tried before."

#### 13. GEORGE S. KAUFMAN (1889-1961)

The Theatre Magazine Company, photograph by Vandamm, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

"At dramatic rehearsals, the only author that's better than an absent one is a dead one."

#### 14. VICTOR BORGE (1909-2000)

Keystone, Getty Images

"Santa Claus has the right idea—visit people only once a year."

#### 15. GEORGE CARLIN (1937-2008)

Ken Howard, Getty Images

"Atheism is a non-prophet organization."

12 Things You Might Not Know About MAD Magazine

As fast as popular culture could erect wholesome depictions of American life in comics, television, or movies, MAD Magazine was there to tear them all down. A near-instant success for EC Comics upon its debut in 1952, the magazine has inspired generations of comedians for its pioneering satirical attitude and tasteful booger jokes. This month, DC Entertainment is relaunching an "all new" MAD, skewering pop culture on a bimonthly basis and in full color. To fill the gaps in your knowledge, take a look at these facts about the Usual Gang of Idiots.

#### 1. NO ONE KNOWS WHO CAME UP WITH ALFRED E. NEUMAN.

Jamie, Flickr (L) // Boston Public Library, Flickr (R) // CC BY 2.0

MAD creator Harvey Kurtzman was in the offices of a Ballantine Books editor discussing reprints for the fledgling publication when he noticed a grinning, gap-toothed imbecile staring back at him from a bulletin board. The unnamed figure was ubiquitous in the early 20th century, appearing in everything from dentistry ads to depictions of diseases. A charmed Kurtzman adopted him as MAD’s mascot beginning in 1954. Neuman later become so recognizable that a letter was delivered from New Zealand to MAD’s New York offices without an address: The envelope simply had a drawing of Alfred.

#### 2. THEY HAD TO APOLOGIZE ALMOST IMMEDIATELY.

MAD was conceived during a particularly sensitive time for the comics industry, with parents and watchdog groups concerned over content. (It didn't switch to a magazine format until issue #24.) Kurtzman usually knew where the line was, but when he was laid up with acute hepatitis in 1952, publisher William Gaines and others had to step in for him. Gaines thought it would be funny to offer a fictional biography of himself that detailed his father’s Communist leanings, his past as a dope dealer “near nursery schools,” and bouts of pyromania. When wholesalers were shocked at the content and threatened to boycott all of his titles, Gaines was forced to write a letter of apology.

#### 3. THEY PREDICTED JOHN F. KENNEDY'S ELECTION IN 1960.

But it was a cheat. In the run-up to the 1960 Presidential election, MAD printed a cover that featured Neuman congratulating Kennedy on his victory with a caption that read, “We were with you all the way, Jack!” But the issue was shipped long before votes had been tabulated. The secret? It was a dual cover. Flip it over and Neuman is celebrating Richard Nixon’s appointment to office. Stores were told to display the “right” side of the magazine depending on the outcome.

#### 4. ALFRED BRIEFLY HAD A GIRLFRIEND.

A character named Moxie Cowznofski was introduced in the late 1950s as a female companion for Alfred. She made only a handful of cover appearances, possibly due to the fact she looked alarmingly like her significant other.

#### 5. THEY DIDN'T RUN ANY (REAL) ADS FOR 44 YEARS.

From the beginning, Gaines felt that printing actual advertisements next to the products they were lampooning would not only dilute their edge but seem more than a little hypocritical. After some back-and-forth, MAD cut ads starting in 1957. The decision was a costly one—most print publications survive on such revenue—but led to the magazine’s keeping a sharp knife against the throat of seductive advertising, including cigarettes. Faced with dwindling circulation in 2001, MAD finally relented and began taking ads to help pay for a switch to color printing.

#### 6. "SPY VS. SPY" WAS CREATED BY A SUSPECTED SPY.

Cuban cartoonist Antonio Prohias was disenchanted with the regime under Fidel Castro when he began working on what would become “Spy vs. Spy.” Because Prohias’s other newspaper illustrations were critical of Castro, the Cuban government suspected him of working for the CIA. He wasn’t, but the perception had him worried harm might come to his co-workers. To get out of the situation, Prohias came to America in 1960. With his daughter helping translate, he stopped by MAD’s New York offices and submitted his work; his sneaky, triangle-headed spies became regulars.

#### 7. THERE WAS ONE FOLD-IN THEY WOULDN'T RUN.

Artist Al Jaffee, now 94, has been with MAD almost from the beginning. He created the famous Fold-In—the back cover that reveals a new picture when doubled over—in 1964 after seeing the fold-outs in magazines like National Geographic, Playboy, and Life. Jaffee has rarely missed an issue since—but editors backtracked on one of Jaffee’s works that referenced a mass shooting in 2013. Citing poor taste, they destroyed over 600,000 copies.

#### 8. THEIR MOVIE WAS A DISASTER.

With the exception of Fox’s successful sketch series, 1994’s MAD TV, attempts to translate the MAD brand into other media have been underwhelming: A 1974 animated special didn’t even make it on air. But a 1980 film venture, a military school spoof directed by Robert Downey, Sr. titled Mad Presents Up the Academy, was so awful William Gaines demanded to have their name taken off of it. (Renamed Up the Academy, the DVD release of the movie still features someone sporting an Alfred E. Neuman mask; MAD parodied it in a spoof titled “Throw Up the Academy.”)

#### 9. THE APRIL 1974 COVER HAD PEOPLE FLIPPING.

MAD has never made a habit of good taste, but a depiction of a raised middle finger for one issue in the mid-’70s caused a huge stir. Many stores wouldn’t stock it for fear of offending customers, and the company ended up accepting an irregular number of returns. Gaines took to his typewriter to write a letter of apology. Again. The relaunched #1, out in April 2018, pays homage to this cover, though it's slightly more tasteful: Neuman is picking his nose with his middle finger.

#### 10. THEY INVENTED A SPORT.

MAD writer Tom Koch was amused by the convoluted rules of sports and attempted to one-up them in 43-Man Squamish, a game he invented for the April 1965 issue. Koch and artist George Woodbridge (“MAD’s Athletic Council”) prepared a guide that was utterly incomprehensible—the field was to have five sides, positions included Deep Brooders and Dummies, “interfering with the Wicket Men” constituted a penalty—but it amused high school and college readers enough to try and mount their own games. (Short on players? Try 2-Man Squamish: “The rules are identical,” Koch wrote, “except the object of the game is to lose.”) For the less physically inclined, MAD also issued a board game in which the goal is to lose all of your money.

#### 11. WEIRD AL WAS A GUEST EDITOR.

In what must be some kind of fulfilled prophecy, lyrical satirist “Weird” Al Yankovic was named as a guest editor—their first—for the magazine’s May 2015 issue. Yankovic told Entertainment Weekly that MAD had put him on “the dark, twisted path to becoming who I am today … I needed to pollute my mind with that kind of stuff.” In addition to his collaborations with the staff, Yankovic enlisted Patton Oswalt, Seth Green, and Chris Hardwick to contribute.

#### 12. FRED ASTAIRE ONCE DANCED AS ALFRED E. NEUMAN.

In a scene so surreal even MAD’s irreverent editors would have had trouble dreaming it up, Fred Astaire decided to sport an Alfred E. Neuman mask for a dance number in his 1959 television special, Another Evening with Fred Astaire. No one seems to recall why exactly Astaire would do this—he may have just wanted to include a popular cultural reference—but it was no off-the-cuff decision. Astaire hired movie make-up veteran John Chambers (Planet of the Apes) to craft a credible mask of Neuman. The result is … well, kind of disturbing. But it’s a fitting addition to a long tradition of people going completely MAD.