This Computer Can Tell Us Whether Puns Are Funny

Do you love a good pun? Or do you hate them with the fiery passion of a thousand burning suns? Depending on your perspective I have either wonderful or terrible news for you: A computer program can tell us whether puns are funny now. Created by Stanford University cognitive psychologist Justine Kao and her team, it's already hard at work determining the best puns around — and the top five? They're just as magnificent or groanworthy as you probably think they are.

As New Scientist points out, computers don't exactly have the best track record when it comes to understanding humor. Jokes — both being able to tell them and being able to understand them — require a sophisticated knowledge of language, culture, stereotypes, in addition to well of personal experience on which to draw; machines don't typically have a handle on any of those things, which means it's not easy to teach a computer what's funny.

Not only that, but trying to define what actually is funny is a challenge in and of itself. First of, there isn't any one set quality that makes a joke funny; furthermore, as all comedians know, trying to explain why a joke is funny is the best way to render it immediately unfunny.

Puns are a relatively easily defined kind of joke, though, and thanks to their reliance on dictionary definitions, they're quantifiable, too — so that's where Kao and her team started. They determined a successful pun to have two characteristics: One, a certain amount of ambiguity — that is, the punny statement can hold more than one meaning, depending on how you interpret it — and two, “distinctiveness,” or how well each of those ambiguous meanings is supported. As John Pollack, author of The Pun Also Rises and 1995 O. Henry Pun-Off World Champion, put it according to NPR in 2011, “The power of a pun comes from two things. One is its ambiguity, and second is: that it enables you to pack more meaning, or more layers of meaning into fewer words. And so if you're trying to convey complex ideas, puns can be really powerful tools to do that.”

From there, it was just a matter of building a model. The researchers developed a computer model capable of first identifying whether a selection of text is a pun in the first place, and then determining how funny it is according to its ambiguity and distinctiveness.

Curious about what makes the grade? According to Kao's model. here are the five funniest puns around:

1. My battery had an alkaline problem so it went to AA meetings.

For the scientific folks in the audience.

2. The man put his name on the heck of his short so he would have collar ID.

Ba-dum CHING!

3. Herb gardeners who work extra get thyme and a half.


4. Last night, I kept dreaming that I had written The Lord of the Rings. The wife said I'd been Tolkien in my sleep.

One for the literary crowd (and my personal favorite).

5. An electrician is a bright spark who knows what's watt.

Yes. Yes, he does.

Images: Giphy (6)