"The Funniest Joke in the World" is the title most frequently used for written references to a Monty Python's Flying Circus comedy sketch, which is also known by two other phrases that appear within it, "Joke Warfare" and "Killer Joke", the latter being the most commonly spoken title used to refer to it. The premise of the sketch is that the joke is so funny that anyone who reads or hears it promptly dies from laughter.
The sketch is framed in a documentary style, and opens with Ernest Scribbler (Michael Palin), a British "writer of jokes", creating the funniest joke in the world only to die laughing. His mother (Eric Idle) finds what she believes to be a suicide note, reads it and also immediately dies laughing. A brave Scotland Yard inspector (Graham Chapman) attempts to retrieve the joke, with the playing of very sombre music on gramophone records and the chanting of laments by fellow policemen to create a depressing mood. The inspector leaves the flat with the joke but also dies from laughter.
The British Army wish to determine "the military potential of the Killer Joke." They test the joke on a rifleman (Terry Jones), who snickers and falls dead on the range. They then translate it into German, with each translator working on only one word of the joke for their own safety (one translator saw two words of the joke and had to be hospitalised). The German translation[note 1] is used for the first time on 8 July 1944 in the Ardennes, causing German soldiers to fall down dead from laughter:
Wenn ist das Nunstück git und Slotermeyer? Ja! Beiherhund das Oder die Flipperwaldt gersput!
The German version is described as being "over 60,000 times as powerful as Britain's great pre-war joke" (at this point a newsreel of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appears on screen). The joke is then used in open warfare, with Tommies running through an open field amid artillery fire shouting the joke at the Germans, who die laughing in response. Afterward, a German field hospital is shown with uncontrollably laughing German soldiers in blood-stained bandages, being attended to by medics with stoppered ears.
In a subsequent scene, a British officer from the Joke Brigade (Palin) has been taken prisoner and is being interrogated by Gestapo officers. The British officer uses the joke to escape as his German captors die laughing, with one German officer (Cleese) uttering a Woody Woodpecker-style laugh before expiring.
The Germans attempt counter-jokes. For example, film is shown of Adolf Hitler supposedly saying "My dog has no nose," then a German soldier asking "How does he smell?", with Hitler replying "Awful!" Eventually their best "V-joke" (in reference to the V-1 flying bomb) is attempted on a radio broadcast: "Der ver zwei peanuts, valking down der strasse, und von vas assaulted...peanut." Although the joke is followed triumphantly by the German anthem Deutschland über alles, the attack is ineffective.
The British joke is said to have been laid to rest when "Peace broke out" at the end of the war, and countries agree to a Joke Warfare ban at the Geneva Convention. In 1950, the last copy of the joke is sealed under a monument in the Berkshire countryside bearing the inscription "To the Unknown Joke". Thus, the English version of the joke is never revealed to the audience.
The footage of Adolf Hitler is taken from Leni Riefenstahl's film Triumph of the Will. The section (about 34 minutes into the film) where Konstantin Hierl presents the Reich Labor Corps to Hitler is the source of the speech used for the joke. The first clip shows Hitler saying Inbesondere keiner mehr in Deutschland leben wird... ("In particular, no one will live in Germany anymore [without working for their country]"), subtitled "My dog has no nose". In the film, the camera cuts briefly away from Hitler; the punchline of the joke is the next shot that shows Hitler's face: "Awful". The original words are eure Schule, from "[The whole nation will go through] your school". "How does he smell?" is from a scene just before Hitler's speech; the original German is Wir sind des Reiches junge Mannschaft!, "We are the Reich's young men!"
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Mark Twain's story "A Literary Nightmare" (also published as "Punch, Brothers, Punch!") tells of a jingle so catchy that, upon hearing it, the listener cannot stop repeating it until it is passed on to someone else.
The 1943 war-time story "Nothing But Gingerbread Left", written decades before by science fiction writer Henry Kuttner, has a very close premise. Rather than a joke, a marching song (in German) is used as a weapon against the German soldiers. Engineered by American linguists, it is by design such a catchy song that the soldiers cannot stop singing it, and eventually they can think of nothing else. At the climax, Adolf Hitler is ready to deliver a critically important speech, but begins chanting the marching song.
A story that ran for several weeks in the Sunday comics of Li'l Abner during 1967 concerned the creation of a joke, never actually revealed, that was so funny that anyone who heard it immediately died laughing. For safety reasons, government agents somehow decided to keep the joke hidden in the protective custody of Abner Yokum. Meanwhile, comedian Bob Hope learns of the existence of this "Funniest Joke in the World", but not about its deadly effects, and decides that he wants to recite it on his next television show. He procures the joke from Abner, and the government agents learn of this development too late to prevent him from reading it on national television. It turns out, however, that before Bob Hope obtained the joke from him, Abner had read the joke, not understood it, and substituted his own favourite joke. It is this joke that Bob Hope reads on the air, to no harmful effect whatsoever.
In other works
The sketch was later remade in a shorter version for the film And Now for Something Completely Different. It is also available on the CD-ROM video game version of the film Monty Python's The Meaning of Life.
- The "translated" joke is meaningless in reality and contains a number of nonsensical pseudo-German words written to sound foreign.
- Chapman, Graham; Cleese, John; Gilliam, Terry; Idle, Eric; Jones, Terry; Palin, Michael (1989). Wilmut, Roger, ed. The Complete Monty Python's Flying Circus: All the Words, Volume One. New York, New York: Pantheon Books. p. 320 (Appendix). ISBN 0-679-72647-0.
- All the Words: Volume One. pp. 10-14.
- Leni Riefenstahl (1935). Triumph of the Will.
- Kuttner, Henry (1943). "Nothing But Gingerbread Left". bravehost.com. Archived from the original on March 14, 2012. Retrieved August 24, 2012.
- Freeze, Christopher. "JokeWarfare". Instagram. Retrieved 12 April 2017.