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This Science-Backed Trick Makes “Dad Jokes” Up to 25 Percent More Humorous

New research reveals that a simple trick changes an audience’s perception of a joke, to the benefit of its teller.

Q: Why did the balloon go near the needle? A: He wanted to be a pop star.

Cue the familial groan. Terrible puns and dad jokes are seen, rightly or not, as a right of passage for dads — and they become a point of pride for the many patriarchs who embrace the art of the PG pun. A new study out of the University College London might help those dads to tell a better joke — or at least one the audience enjoys more. When researchers followed a joke with laughter, they found the joke’s audience was primed to respond to it more favorably. Yes, this worked with canned laughter too. Time to bookmark that laugh track on YouTube

The aim of the study was not, the researchers claim, to help dads improve their stand-up game. “This study was an attempt to come up with an implicit measure of laughter,” says study coauthor and neuroscience professor Sophie Scott. “So any effect of the laughter is being processed implicitly because it’s not what we’ve been told to think about.”

To do this, Scott and her colleagues first recruited 20 college students to rate the overall funniness of 40 dad jokes to establish a baseline for humor by rating them on a scale of one to seven. Then a professional comedian read these jokes to 24 individuals with autism and 48 neuro-typical adults; the jokes were followed with what researchers described as spontaneous laughter, posed laughter, or no laughter at all. Posed laughter was recorded by actors, whereas spontaneous laughter was recorded in real-life groups of people socializing. Results revealed that regardless of whether laughs were posed or spontaneous or participants were autistic or neuro-typical, laughter significantly influenced what they thought was funny. 

Sitcoms in the U.K. often utilize laugh tracks and the funniest dad jokes in this study underscore just how British this research is. For instance, one of the lowest-rated jokes regardless of canned laughs was “What kind of hair do they sell at IHOP? Eggstensions.” The researchers suspect most people did not get that particular joke because people in the U.K. don’t go to IHOP. In contrast, one of the highest-rated jokes in the study is fit for the queen: “What’s round and sounds like a trumpet? A crumpet.” Another personal favorite of the researchers: “What’s orange and sounds like a parrot? A carrot.” And of course there’s the timeless quip, “What is invisible and smells of worms? A bird’s fart.” 

Bad jokes aside, the study has more far-reaching implications. Since autistic and neuro-typical people appeared to be equally sensitive to canned laughs, the way their brains process laughter may not be as different than scientists have previously thought. Scott believes that this could have a crucial impact on how autism and neurodiversity are studied in the future.

“What we’re picking up on as differences in social and emotional processing between neuro-typical and autistic adults might have something to do with the way that we’re developing tasks,” Scott adds. “That’s something that we’re very interested in thinking about going forward. Maybe adults show the same behavior but resting on different brain systems and that’ something else we need to know.” 

As for whether or not the study suggests that a laugh track would save dads from bombing at the dinner table like it’s Live at the Apollo, Scott sees that as a generous conclusion to draw at best. 

“I don’t think anything can help with these jokes, and that’s not really the point. The takeaways are that laughter is meaningful, people pay attention to it. And when it comes after jokes people seem to find those jokes funnier,” she says. “I don’t like the term dad jokes because I think all parents should be able to tell terrible jokes.”

10 Top-Rated Dad Jokes From the University College London Study

If a laugh track does not work on the following 10 bad “dad” jokes, directly from the study, then perhaps a British accent might help.

  1. What do you call a Minecraft celebration? A block party.
  2. What do you call a rabbit who is angry over getting burnt? A hot cross bunny.
  3. Why couldn’t the toilet paper cross the road? He got stuck in a crack.
  4. What do you call a man with a spade on his head? Dug.
  5. What do you call an Asian man who always has correct change? Exact Lee.
  6. Why can’t you give Elsa a balloon? Because she will let it go.
  7. Why are cats good at video games? Because they have nine lives.
  8. Why was the tomato all red? It saw the salad dressing.
  9. What do you call a female magician in the desert? A sand witch.
  10. Why did the balloon go near the needle? He wanted to be a pop star.
  11. What do flies eat for breakfast? A bowl of poop loops.