We, British, are trained in puns from an early age. Who amongst us does not have experience from an early childhood of the joke inside the Christmas cracker. It's as much a part of the festive season as turkey and mince pies, holly and mistletoe, and a lack of snow on the roof of the London meteorological office. In 2006 Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire conducted a survey on cracker jokes through the Daily Telegraph. So he is the most appropriate pundit to whom we can turn.
- One thing we found out straight away is that Christmas cracker jokes really are not very funny at all. So we had in fact 65% of our participants never once ticked the 'yes, this is a funny gag' box. So we are really talking about series of alleged jokes that aren't funny. Which is a kind of weird category of jokes.
So, why, - one may pertinently ask - do we persist in doing it?
- I think that is a really interesting question. Why is it that this tradition would survive for so long when it doesn't make people laugh? Clearly it has nothing to do with the laughter. I suspect what's happening is that you have a shared experience around the table. That everyone is sitting there, somebody tells a joke and it is a natural psychology of humour that any joke will make some people laugh and not others. Which isn't a shared experience, isn't a bonding experience. But if you tell a bad joke - everyone groans, we are all in it together. And it also takes the pressure off the joke teller. If you got a good joke and you tell it badly, everyone goes on: oh, you've just messed it up - and you feel bad at the family table. If you got a bad joke in your hand, you can't tell it badly. It's a bad joke. If no one responds, no one laughs - you blame the piece of paper, not yourself. So I think there is an interesting social psychology.
That will also explain why so many cracker jokes take the form they do: a question. Inviting the others to participate in hesiting(?) a guess and an answer that we can all groan at. Dr. Wiseman as is fitting the pungent observation on why this appeals to us, British.
- I suspect what's going on is that it's a weird British celebration of failure. The Americans, for example, don't have the cracker tradition at all. I spoke about our results on American radio and they couldn't get the head around the idea of a joke that did not work. And they were fascinated by that. The host kept coming back and say 'No-no-no, let me get this right - you've got jokes that aren't funny and you all sit around telling them?' I said: 'yes, that's right, that's the tradition!'. 'Why would you do that?' He was completely perplexed. I think it's about Brits kind of going: 'It's all right to fail.' Failure is a bonding excercise, we are all in it together. We are not about picking up one person around the table and going: 'You are the best! You know, you are the successful person we all going to look up to!' It is this rather weird British celebration of failure.