Two-thirds of people 'laugh at jokes they don't understand to fit in'

Two-thirds of people laugh at jokes they don’t understand to fit in, with humour involving PUNS puzzling them the most, study finds

  • 67 per cent of Britons admitted they laugh at jokes that they don’t understand
  • Another 56 per cent had looked up the meaning of a joke that they didn’t get
  • ‘How do you drown a Hipster? In the mainstream’ was the hardest joke to grasp
  • The ability to get gags can vary depending on culture, context and brain activity 
  • The research was led by British scientist and comedy expert Dr Helen Pilcher 

More than two-thirds of Brits – 67 per cent – laugh at jokes they don’t understand to fit in, according to new research.

In a survey of more than 2,000 Britons, 56 per cent also admitted to re-telling jokes without understanding the punchline themselves. 

Another 56 per cent said they had needed to look up the meaning of a joke that they did not understand.

Jokes based on unfamiliar concepts and word play were the hardest for people to grasp out of the dozens that made up the survey.

The researchers found ‘How do you drown a Hipster? In the mainstream’ was the joke most likely to confuse, followed by the much-loved ‘Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana’. 

The report and research by neuroscientist and comedy expert Dr Helen Pilcher tested a series of jokes on 2,000 adults. It found more than two-thirds laugh at jokes that they didn’t understand just to fit it

The research was led by British neuroscientist, author and and comedy expert Dr Helen Pilcher.  

‘Laughter is universal but humour is immensely subjective and although people all over the world enjoy a good joke what they find funny varies according to a number of things, such as culture, context and language,’ she said. 

‘Brain activity is also implicated. The brain contains billions of neurons, and can process large amounts of information in very short time periods.’ 

The study found just over six in ten liked to think themselves as quick-witted despite seven in ten actually often needing to have a joke explained to them. 

Dr Pilcher identified variables that determine types of humour that some individuals get and some don’t.

Factors including age, upbringing, personal and cultural background and life experiences all influenced whether they respondents understood a punchline.  

There could be an age barrier when it comes to our ability to laugh at hipsters, the research suggests

The study identified the top 10 jokes that Brits said they had to read them more than once to properly understand. 

At the top of the list was ‘How do you drown a Hipster? In the mainstream’ – cited by 46 per cent of respondents as having a hard-to-grasp punchline. 

This joke involves an understanding of both the wordplay and the cultural context – so older people might not grasp the reference.       

The person being told the joke needs an understanding that hipsters are perceived to be anti-mainstream, as well as the double meaning of the word ‘mainstream’. 

Despite being an old favourite, ‘Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana’ – memorably told by Steve Coogan in an episode of The Trip – also confused 45 per cent of respondents.

The study was commissioned by TV channel Gold and inspired by scenes at the end of each episode of the much-loved British sitcom The Vicar of Dibley. 

The research was inspired by the end scenes of each episode of The Vicar of Dibley: Geraldine (Dawn French, right) attempts to tell Alice (Emma Chambers, left) a joke that falls flat

Lead character Geraldine, played by Dawn French, attempts to tell Alice, played by the late Emma Chambers, a joke – but it almost always falls flat as the dim-witted Alice fails to understand the punchline. 

‘For some people, all the elements of a joke come together in an instant and they ‘get’ the joke,’ said Dr Pilcher.

‘But if any of the elements are missing, then the joke falls flat, much like in The Vicar of Dibley.’ 

The research found the most appreciated joke from the series: Two nuns are driving through Transylvania when a vampire jumps on the bonnet. One nun says to the other ‘show him your cross’. So the nun opens the window and yells: ‘Get off my bonnet you toothy git!’

Gold’s celebration of the show, The Vicar of Dibley: Inside Out, airs on Saturday (March 6). 


Top 10 jokes that amuse and confuse in equal measure according to British adults.

The percentages refer to the proportion of survey respondents who said they had to read them more than once to understand/before they found them funny. 

1. How do you drown a Hipster? In the mainstream (46 per cent) 

2. Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana (45 per cent) 

3. A jar of Omega 3 vitamins fell on my head when I opened the cupboard. I sustained super fish oil injuries (40 per cent) 

4. How do you milk sheep? With iPhone accessories (38 per cent) 

5. How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A fish (36 per cent) 

6. What do accountants do when they’re constipated? They work it out with a pencil (35 per cent) 

7. A cowboy asked me if I could help him round up 18 cows. I said, ‘Yes, of course. That’s 20 cows’ (30 per cent) 

8. A horse walks into a bar and the barman says ‘Hey, why the long face?’ (29 per cent) 

9. What does a dyslexic, agnostic, insomniac do at night? He stays up wondering if there really is a dog (28 per cent) 

10. I’m very pleased with my new fridge magnet. So far, I’ve got 12 fridges (18 per cent) 

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