Maybe from boredom?

The very worst joke I have ever heard from a professional stand-up comedian is (roughly) as follows:

I don't trust Barack Obama. Call me paranoid, but the last time a black man with an imperialist agenda had that much military power, it was Darth Vader.

It did raise a laugh from some of the audience, but I’m forced to assume they were drunk because the joke makes no sense. It makes no sense because it relies on the audience subscribing to his somewhat contentious views on Obama’s politics, but mostly because Darth Vader is white. He just dresses in black, as has every US president since forever. Basically the uncontroversial similarities he’s found between Obama and Vader are that they’re both in charge of powerful armies and while that’s a fair reason to be wary of them, it’s not funny and I’m not capable of finding something funny if it relies on me selectively ignoring facts.

In The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas Adams makes much the same argument about the joke “if the black box is so indestructible, why don’t they make the whole plane out of the same stuff”, which he described as “the teller and the audience complacently conspiring together to jeer at someone who knew more than they did”.

No, I like my comedy to be smart, and to mock people who, either through dishonesty or ignorance, promote nonsense. So this sounded fairly good to me:

You have a 0.000043% chance of dying during this show. We can’t tell you what you’ll die FROM. It could be heart attack, shark attack, or insertion of a sharp object into an orifice. But we will make sure you at least die laughing. Stand up mathematician Matt Parker and comedian Timandra Harkness got sick of reading ill-founded stories about how eating this or doing that was going to add six months to your life span, or halve your risk of dying from something or other. So they got a grant from the UK’s biggest biomedical charity, the Wellcome Trust, to do the research and bring you the most definitive comedy show ever about dying.

But then I noticed one detail: Timandra Harkness. I’ve never seen her perform, but it’s a distinctive name and one I knew I recognised, and I just worked out whence: in 2004 she helped publicise ”the formula for the perfect joke” in order to promote her show. The formula was

x = (fl + no) ÷ p

where f is “the funniness of the punchline”, l is “the length of the buildup”, p is “the number of puns”, and just in case this seemed a bit too reasonable, n is “the amount someone falls over” and o is “the ouch factor”. Science often throws up unexpected results, and here we learn that because War and Peace has very high values for both l and n, and a very low p value, it is in fact provably hysterical (although my preferred formula x = f doesn’t throw up this anomaly). This is just an advert posing as bullshit posing as maths posing as science.

I wholeheartedly agree that the simplistic “+6 months” reporting of health stories is annoying and I’d love to see a show that poked fun at it in a clever way, but frankly I don’t for a second believe that Timandra Harkness is the person to do it. Partly this is because once you sell your (and science’s) credibility in this way, I think you forfeit your right to “get sick of reading ill-founded stories about [science]”, but mostly it’s because I agree with Nicholas Parsons that

The formula has obviously been thought up by somebody with no sense of humour.

No, I like my comedy to be by people with a sense of humour.