75. Feeding jokes and riddles into Multivac.

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Because I’m worth it.

 

Obviously I can’t say anything about it, but I’ve been on Jury Service. I’d love to tell you all about the case but I can’t. Suffice it to say, as a spectator experience, this beats soaps and reality shows and probably boxing too.

There are some things I just have to write down. There’s a lot of time hanging round in the jury waiting room, which is about as comfortable as a Ryanair departure gate. Though they do have daytime TV, it keeps being interrupted by the How to Be in a Jury DVD. Luckily one of the ushers is a stand up comedian and keeps popping in to try out material on the captive audience.

For some reason, jokes, like dreams, don’t seem to bed themselves into the memory banks very well. When it’s time to remember a joke to tell, the memory just vanishes. Isaac Asimov based a whole short story, ‘Jokester’, on this premise, concluding that jokes were part of a psychology experiment carried out by aliens.

This time I resolve to write them down straight away.

A man comes into the doctor’s surgery.

‘Doctor, I think I’m a moth’.

‘You really need a psychiatrist rather than a GP’

‘Yes, I know, but your light was on’.

No-one laughed apart from me. That’s a bit worrying, since the jury is one of the very few occasions where a random sample of the population has been assembled. Is my sense of humour, statistically, a bit odd? Everyone seems very normal, at least compared with the people I normally meet. Perhaps they have heard it before, or perhaps its because I like psychiatrist jokes more than the average person. Perhaps I am tuned in to contrasts: here’s an ultra sober setting, a Crown Court where people are being tried for sex crimes and murder. And here’s one of the court officers, dressed in a gown, telling gags. Humour often arises out of adverse situations, but why exactly? Why do people make sick jokes about Princess Diana or Fred West?

The usher announces further delays. We see one of the judges arrive in his Impreza and a flunkey goes out to open his door and hold an umbrella over him as he walks five yards to the court entrance. That would never happen in the NHS, not even for Lord Winston.

A man comes into a doctor’s surgery.

You should know I’ve got a rather unusual congenital problem

Tell me more about it

I was born with five penises

Hmm. That must make it difficult to get your trousers on

Actually, they fit… like a glove.

 

I laughed more than the others again, but I like stand up and even pay to see comedians live, which probably places me in a small minority of the population.

The usher pauses ever so slightly between the words ‘fit’ and ‘like’ in the punchline. For some reason that bit of timing is critical in adding humour, the split second somehow priming the laughter pump, like turbo lag. As he finishes the last line he turns and swoops out of the room in a grand exit.

Jokes and dreams. Why can’t we remember them? Is it a lack of concentration, which stops us filing them away properly, or do they just belong to a different part of the brain from the usual memory, like singing uses a different system from talking? Is there an equivalent of a Save command in the memory system, that somehow doesn’t always get pressed?

There are many psychological theories about joke memory, including a rule that the very best jokes are the most difficult ones to remember. Maybe it’s because jokes are inherently discordant and can’t be processed into patterns. And perhaps humour offers a defence mechanism against discordant experiences, like horrific crimes.

I have a friend who races snails. He takes it very seriously. In fact he has one extremely fast snail that he enters for national competitions. For the snail Olympics, to make it even faster, he decided to improve the snails power to weight ratio by removing its shell. After this, it won its next race easily.

I asked my friend how he felt about it.

He said, great performance, although somehow… just a bit sluggish.

I’d like to think that a sense of humour is an asset in working with people with mental health problems. I used to think it was a moral imperative to state a witty remark if it happened to come into your mind. Nowadays though, especially with regard to some people’s interpretations of political correctness, the smart move is to keep it to yourself. No-one would be allowed regular comedy slots in an NHS department, not even dermatology. Even though you can buy a book called ‘The best ever book of dermatology jokes’ on Amazon.

Here’s a joke I found sent into a forum. You are meant to answer the question: Why does no-one trust a dermatologist? The answer is supposed to be ‘he keeps making rash decisions’. Instead someone has responded, in capitals:

BECAUSE THEY SAY YOU NEED A MOLE REMOVED WHICH CAUSES NO PROBLEMS AND INSTEAD LEAVE AN UGLY AND EVEN BIGGER SCAR

I don’t know why that’s funny, but it is. Discordant notes again I suppose. It doesn’t pay to overanalyse it.

At the end of ‘Jokester’, once it was revealed that jokes were nothing more than part of an experiment, humour was simply ‘turned off”. Was Asimov anticipating the PC movement, or was Jokester just a true story?

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