It’s official. The funniest joke in the world was written by Spike Milligan. As if a poll was needed to establish that.
Five years ago an academic from the University of Hertfordshire in England, Richard Wiseman, conducted an online survey. Three hundred thousand people from around the world took part and voted for the best joke. Last week, Wiseman announced that the joke was almost certainly the work of Spike Milligan. It’s always very difficult, if not impossible, to track the origins of a joke. However, Milligan wrote all the Goon Show scripts and there subsequently exists a record of this joke’s emergence and its author. It has changed over time, though, contemporising since it first appeared in the fifties.
The joke that was voted the funniest in Wiseman’s survey goes like this:
Two hunters are out in the New Jersey woods when one suddenly collapses. He doesn’t appear to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. His friend whips out his phone and calls the emergency number. “My friend is dead, what can I do?” he asks.
The operator says, “Calm down, I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.”
There’s a moment’s pause, then a shot is heard. The hunter comes back on the line. “OK, now what?”
Hunters in New Jersey woods (there’s nothing that isn’t Americanised in the end) and mobile phones are rather more contemporary than you would hear in a Goon Show episode, naturally. The Milligan version of the gag was performed by Michael Bentine and Peter Sellers.
Bentine: I just came in and found him lying on the carpet there.
Sellers: Oh, is he dead?
Bentine: I think so.
Sellers: Hadn’t you better make sure?
Bentine: All right. Just a minute.
Sound of two gun shots.
Bentine: He’s dead.
Naturally, the original version is, in my mind, better than the modern version. Then again, I’m a Goon Show fanatic so I’m sure I’m biased. And it might not really be the absolute funniest joke in the world, but it is a good one. Even though three hundred thousand people decided it was the funniest, they no doubt only had a limited range of jokes to choose from. It’s entirely possible that the joke that really is the funniest in the existence wasn’t included in the survey.
Still, I don’t mind. To have Spike Milligan as the author of the world’s funniest joke, until proven otherwise, is just fine by me.