randombio.com | Science Dies in Unblogginess | Believe All Science | Follow The Science
Friday, May 21, 2021

Cheap laughs on the computer

Computer-generated anagrams may be cheap jokes, but they help us understand why some jokes are amusing and some aren't

T hese days we live in a cultural desert, so we have to create our own entertainment. Sometimes you just have to get away from reading the Post (which sounds like something you would like to hammer into the ground) and do something useless, like goofing off on the computer by getting it to generate cheap jokes.

Anagram of I am Lord Voldemort

An anagram

One might say this is a way of seeking new insights about humor, but saying so comes perilously close to the section in a research grant where we tell the reviewers how essential our work is and how it will save lives and lead to important new insights. Grant reviewers know that's bullshit, but it's all part of the game of Let's Pretend where we justify to ourselves why we ought not be sent to the unemployment line.

Unfortunately, goofing off on the computer invariably turns into a task of debugging somebody else's program. In the case of the well known Linux anagram generator, an-0.95.tar.gz, when I ran the program I got either:

malloc(): corrupted top size


malloc(): invalid size (unsorted)

To fix that, it was necessary to repair the off-by-one error in xcalloc() in the file an.c by adding
num_objects++; size++;
before the line that says location = calloc (num_objects, size);. And, of course, we have to give it a customized copy of our words file (/usr/share/dict/words) to avoid results like
an -m 3 "washingtonpost"
sow th's nag point
which is a pretty good example of a non-amusing anagram.

Okay, so here are the results.

Input text Amusing Anagram Non-Amusing Anagram
'republican party'capably prurientray bun carpet lip
'democratic party'myopic crated ratray dorm pet cacti
'communist party'patronymic smutsymptomatic urn
'i am lord voldemort'mm, i loved rat droolmm, odd riot overall
'i am lord voldemort'i love ram drool mtmm, i'd overdo a troll
'new york times'monkeys writewintery smoke
'new york times'yonkers wit meenormity skew
'national review'i weevil, anon ratinterwove lanai
'democracy'comedy carcry me coda
'mail-in voting'violin matingvomiting nail
'settled science'selected incestlicensed testes
'twitter feed'fetid wetterfew tittered
'all the news that's fit to print'forthwith slept talent stainflatten wealth stript shinto
'in the beginning god created the heavens and the earth' thee hath hedged nonrestrictive abnegating hennaednonrestrictive bedding ghana heed thee hah tang teen

It might be hard to tell, but the anagrams in column 2 generally seem to be slightly more amusing than those in column 3. But why? It seems to me that the answer tells us something important about humor. The common belief that humor is a way of deflating someone else's unearned claim of status—in other words, a type of social or political attack—is, in my opinion, incorrect.

The last item in the table gives us the clue: although it still doesn't quite make sense, it appears to be struggling toward something the Bible could have written. What makes it amusing is that it forces your brain to backtrack and re-interpret in a different way the scenario your joke laid out. The imaginary world that the brain constructed must be discarded and the facts re-interpreted to build a new one. That gives us a dizzying hit of dopamine that we interpret as humor.

The re-interpretation of the hypothetical world could be a social takedown, but it need not be so.

In the case of anagrams, it only works if the result appears to be a cynical comment on the original phrase. Or in other words, a cheap laugh. It's amusing not because it's cynical, or because it's cheap, but because it tricks the brain into thinking it's getting some great insight. That's not really true, of course, so in a way, all jokes are ironic: every joke is a joke on you.

(Update, May 22 2021) Creating anagrams is easy for a computer—the software creates so much output it rapidly exceeds the maximum file length. But it cannot decide which anagrams are amusing, because it has no model for the world which could be overturned. This tells us that unless an AI generates a model for the world, the best it can produce is a mindlesss collection of random associations.

may 21 2021, 6:11 am. updated may 22 2021, 5:10 am

Related Articles

What is humor?
After years of intensive research, science still has no idea why some jokes are funny and others aren't

Computer predictions for 2006
Way back in 2006 we used a sophisticated computer program to predict the future. Unfortunately it kept crashing

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise

book reviews