Lucy Greeves, with co-author Jimmy Carr, wrote what is probably my favourite of all books about comedy: The Naked Jape
In it they write…
“We began this chapter with a riddle: why do human beings tell jokes? To make each other laugh. But like most riddles, this one has a twist in the tail. A joke is a highly sophisticated verbal flourish, a product of human culture and intellect and linguistic skill, which has so far defied science’s efforts to reproduce it under laboratory conditions. Animals can’t do it, and machines can’t do it.”
Which seems to very much support Robert Webb’s view it would make a great test of consciousness.
They go on…
“Telling a joke is complex higher-order communication. But the way we enjoy the joke is totally primitive. Laughter – that’s a guttural, animal noise, a physical response halfway between fear and ecstasy that we share with the apes. It flies below our intellectual radar, at the level of instinct.”
You know the moment a joke hits you, and you laugh out loud – it is swift, and obvious whether or not it hits the mark. And it is often raw and simple.
“A joke has special powers to bridge the gap between the tickled chimp and the academic; to short-circuit our cultural trajectory and remind us how far we haven’t come. The truth, it appears, is that we only invented jokes when it became socially unacceptable for grown-ups to tickle one another in public.”
In a way, that says it all – and makes me want to put my computer away and never write again.