In the age of media training and social-media outrage, humour has seemingly taken a back seat. But are people in positions of power and prestige really as po-faced as we expect them to be in public? We think not. And to prove it, we asked a host of them, from ambassadors to virology specialists, to tickle our funny bones with the most hilarious joke they could muster. Prepare for the punchline.
“A sense of humour,” as the critic and poet Clive James once said, “is just common sense dancing.” Nowhere is this sense more universally (some might say crudely) demonstrated than through what are known affectionately (or not) as “dad jokes”. These corny one-liners – usually punny, sometimes funny – go something like, “Why did the scarecrow win an award? Because he was out standing in his field.” Or perhaps: ‘What’s long, brown and sticky? A stick.’ Ahem…
It pains me to write these and I feel compelled to apologise for doing so. But why? Maybe it’s because an English teacher once told me that puns were the lowest form of wit, lower even than sarcasm (yeah, right). And yet, despite the groans that frequently follow such unsophisticated gags, they are an easy way to find common ground even with people with whom we share very little (a common language, for example). These are the jokes we remember and keep on telling. In lieu of memorised poetry or prayer, they are often the only formulations passed down through generations.
But we’ve hit a brick wall, and not in a funny way. Telling jokes, especially in a professional setting, has become frowned upon. I’m not talking about offensive jokes – those that play on stereotype or prejudice – which are, besides all else, unfunny and therefore doubly inappropriate. I’m referring to a simple attempt to bring levity to a situation.
By drawing a straight line between humour and common sense, Clive James was recognising that life is inherently absurd. These days, when so much of what a leader or public figure says is decided by advisors, making a spontaneous joke is an act of rebellion.
In the interests of providing a platform for people who might not have much of an opportunity to show their humorous side, we asked politicians, economists and Nobel laureates for their favourite jokes. Unfortunately, many of them demurred – probably due to those aforementioned committees. But the good ones decided to rebel. So here is some endearing (and enduring) proof that, on page as in life, it’s important not to take oneself too seriously.
How many news anchors does it take to change a light bulb?
One – they hold it up and wait for the room to rotate around them.
Former UN humanitarian chief and a fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington:
Hedgehogs. Why can’t they share the hedge?
Medical consultant specialising in clinical microbiology and virology at Cambridge University:
A neutron goes into a bar and orders a beer. “For you,” says the barman, “no charge!”
Secretary-general of the Norwegian Refugee Council:
There are days when I sympathise with the hypochondriac who put on his headstone: “Do you believe me now?”
Former UK defence secretary:
A Catholic priest and a rabbi are on the train together. The priest asks the rabbi if he can ask him a very personal question. The rabbi agrees. The priest asks if the rabbi has ever had bacon. The rabbi admits that he once did. The rabbi asks the priest if he has ever had sex. The Catholic priest admits that he once did, to which the rabbi says, “It’s better than bacon, isn’t it?”
Host of ‘Conversations’ on Australia’s ABC Radio:
A member of parliament has a town hall meeting with the voters in his rural electorate. He asks them what the two biggest issues are for them right now. One voter says, “Well, first, there’s too many feral pigs attacking the livestock.” So the politician whips out his mobile phone, has a short, tense conversation, then announces that the problem is fixed: he’s arranged for some shooters to come out to cull the pigs. “What’s the second problem?” he asks. The voter says, “There’s no mobile phone coverage.”
Founder of non-profit organisation China Dialogue:
It is the second day of the Soviet Party congress and there is a rumour that an enemy of the people has got into the hall. Ivan, the policeman, is sent to find the enemy of the people among the 6,000 delegates. After half an hour he identifies a man in the fifth row. “Great work,” says the commissar. “But how do you know he is the enemy of the people?” “Easy,” says Ivan. “Didn’t Lenin tell us that the enemy of the people never sleeps?”
Former British ambassador to North Korea:
Presidents Bolsonaro of Brazil, Piñera of Chile and Fernández of Argentina are discussing whose economy will return to normal soonest and are overheard by the local papal nuncio. He points out that he has a hotline to God in the next room and invites them to put their questions to Him.
President Piñera is first up and says, “Please tell me when the Chilean economy will come right.” God replies, “Not in your time but in the time of your successor.” Piñera returns satisfied.
President Bolsonaro is next. He asks,“When will the Brazilian economy come right?” God replies, “Not in your time, nor in the time of your successor but in the time of your successor’s successor.” Bolsonaro emerges satisfied.
President Fernández finally enters the room and asks, “When will the Argentine economy come right?” God pauses for a moment then replies, “Not in my time.”
Associate of the Centre for European Research at Queen Mary University:
A policeman stops a woman for speeding and asks to see her licence. He says, “Lady, it says here that you should be wearing glasses.” The woman says “Well, I have contacts.” The policeman replies, “I don’t care who you know! You’re still getting a ticket!”
Professor Emeritus of American studies at the University of Birmingham:
How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb?
Only one. But the light bulb has to really want to change.
Executive director of the Canadian Film Centre:
Why do the French only eat one egg? Because in France, one egg is un oeuf.
Foreign editor of Greek daily ‘Kathimerini’:
Moscow, 1939. Stalin welcomes to his office a delegation of industrial workers from the Urals. As soon as they leave, he reaches for his pipe to have a smoke. It’s nowhere to be found. “Lavredi,” Stalin shouts out the door to Beria. “The workers from the Urals were just here. Only now they’ve left and I can’t find my pipe.” Beria rushes after the delegation while Stalin searches his desk a bit more. He opens a drawer, lifts some documents, finds his pipe underneath. He picks up the phone. “Lavredi, you fool, I finally found the pipe. It was at the bottom of my drawer.” “Oh? How strange. Everyone here has already confessed to taking it.”
Chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and former director of the Office for Public Liason under Ronald Reagan:
My old boss Ronald Reagan was fond of saying that politics was said to be the second oldest profession in the world. “What I’ve learned,” he’d add without missing a beat, “is how closely it resembles the oldest.”
Media strategist and founder of think-tank Movement Vision Lab:
What do you call a bear without an ear? B.
Emeritus Professor of peace studies at Bradford University:
A group of engineers are discussing what kind of engineer God is, given the complexity of the human body. Each speaks in turn:
Structural: “He must be a structural engineer, because of the marvel of the skeleton.”
Mechanical: “But it would be static without the wonder of the joints.”
Electrical: “Both are useless without those incredible nerves.”
Chemical: “In any case, it all needs energy from digesting food.”
Civil engineer: Silent throughout but then speaks up: “God must be a civil engineer because only a civil engineer would run a toxic waste pipe through a recreational facility.”