Between June 2006 and June 2007, the Open University and the BBC have carried out a nationwide survey of British jokes and created a new TV genre – the ‘docu-com’. Lenny’s Britain is a four part series exploring what makes us laugh, and how we use humour in our everyday lives.

As part of Lenny Henry’s tour of British humour, we’ve been gathering hundreds of jokes and anecdotes from the public in ten cities across the UK by setting up a joke booth in shopping centres.

So what did we find out? Based on our survey and other research we found an amazing wealth and diversity in the British comic imagination – especially among the younger and older age groups.

Over 420 people entered the joke booth, recording over 600 jokes and anecdotes. Half our jokers were under 20 and a quarter over 50. We had a roughly even number of males and females.

Many of the people entering our booth displayed superb joke telling skills. This is impressive when you consider how contributors told their jokes 'cold' to camera without the benefit of an audience of friends - only Sam the cameraman.

Some joked with Sam to relax: "This isn't really a joke room. This is something else. You're testing us for something else.'" Some performed like stars using comic techniques like impersonation, gesture and clowning or deadpan delivery. A few read their jokes from their mobile phones.

The majority of jokes were based around some kind of word play.

Lengthy jokes would end with a play on words, for example, "‘'Are you a piece of string?' 'No, I'm a frayed knot'". Jokers demonstrated a real love for playing with the English language - a very idiomatic language with a huge vocabulary and endless possibilities for wordplay.

Riddle and narrative jokes

Two main types of jokes were told: riddle and narrative jokes. Six out of ten were riddles or jokes posing a question or puzzle. Why might this be so?

Well, riddle jokes are easier to tell and to memorise, and there’s also a long tradition of riddles and wordplay in English - ranging from the Anglo-Saxon riddles, through Shakespeare, to the Christmas cracker motto. But modern riddle jokes are an American export and have been displacing narrative jokes in the UK since the advent of TV in the 1950s.

Where storytelling is valued, people are more likely to become good storytellers

Our sample of joke tellers is also very young. The young revel in wordplay and riddle jokes. Riddle jokes ask questions that cannot be answered using logic or experience. You have to know the joke - that’s punchline power!

Kids' jokes were often drawn from popular TV series, films and joke books and we found the same jokes circulating around the playgrounds of the country.

Narrative jokes require a lot more skill to tell and it takes time to acquire these skills. But where the art of storytelling is valued, people are much more likely to become good storytellers, and that includes funny stories. In Swansea eight out of ten of our participants told narrative jokes. Many of the Irish people and Liverpudlians who told us their jokes also displayed good storytelling skills. Maybe that reflects something about their culture?

Quite often we’d hear the same joke being adapted and reinvented in different places. Some people tell them like a story that’s happened to them personally and use local place names and idioms to add local colour.

Who laughs at what?

The most common butts of jokes, in descending order, were:

  • Ethnicity and nationality
  • Sex, sexuality and gender
  • Stupidity
  • Religion
  • Celebrity
  • Ageing (old age especially)
  • Class

Of course some jokes combine butts, like sexuality and ethnicity, and jokes based on wordplay often don’t have a clear butt.

Age is an important factor in joking. What stands out is the great popularity of ethnic and sex jokes among young people. The number of sex jokes was highest among teenagers and the over 70s. This doesn’t simply reflect the sample. Younger people may well display more sexual curiosity, and older people less anxiety about sex, than those who are in the more sexually active stage of their lives.

Gender, too, shapes the jokes we tell. Men make most jokes about nationality, women and stupidity - often in combination. They make many more jokes about stupidity than women. Men also tend to tell more jokes about gays, women, Irish, and black people - jokes with a potentially negative twist - than they do about other groups.

Women make jokes about nationality and men but hardly ever about stupidity.

The over 50s make most jokes about stupidity.

We didn’t find many jokes that play on class differences which was odd since one of the defining features of British society is its class system and there’s a venerable tradition of all manner of jokes about people's social standings. Nor did we find many jokes that revolve around regional differences, though we know that people living in border areas tend to joke about each other. Could it be that these themes don’t resonate so much with people’s lives today or that they find alternative means of expression?

Sex, Ethnic and Political Jokes

Sex and ethnic jokes are roughly equal in number but there are no straightforward political jokes.

Ethnic jokes still fall predominantly into the ‘Irish stupidity’ category. This tradition goes back to the 17th Century. There are no jokes about the Welsh, except one or two told in Wales. The once strong English tradition of jokes about aggressive and boastful Welshmen faded away in the early seventeenth century.

On the whole the jokes were good natured although there were quite a few instances where they seemed to be more pointedly negative. We found a cluster of jokes where black people were the butts: “What do you call two black men in suits? Thieves”. (This joke was also told about Scousers.) In Wolverhampton, for example, an Asian contributor told a sequence of riddles that were a clear ‘put down’ of black people - perhaps he feels less constrained by fears of "politically correct" condemnation?

But it’s important to distinguish between a joke, and the use of a joke - that being very varied and the product of its telling. What is key is the tone in which a joke is told and the social context in which it is told. It is easy to turn a joke into an insult - but that requires intention.

Circulating Jokes

Jokes have no author. They circulate in mysterious ways. They come and they go. They are a barometer of the social and political climate. Jokes often spread like a virus by media and word of mouth because they resonate with a contemporary theme or event. A lot of jokes recur in our survey, most frequently ‘I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy’. Does this joke reflect, playfully, on current national concerns about alcohol abuse and the depression in UK society? Or is it just a fun pun?

Thanks to Tom Cheesman, Christie Davies, Ruth Finnegan, Mairead Gillespie, Wendy Lawson, Ben O’ Loughlin for contributions and comments