What I seek when I need a laugh

Ahead of April Fool's Day, we asked psychologists what they find funny. Leave your own comments below, or tweet @psychmag

03 March 2017

Do psychologists have a particular taste in comedy? We thought we would ask a load for cultural recommendations, beginning mostly with those who have shown their own funny bones through involvement with Bright Club, 'The Thinking Person's Variety Night'. Here we collect their answers, and seek more contributions.

Suzi Gage is a lecturer at the University of Liverpool and produces the Say Why to Drugs podcast: 

-        As a podcaster myself, I listen to a lot of other shows while I’m walking to or from work, but the one that consistently has me laughing so hard I get funny looks on the street is the Elis James and John Robins on Radio X podcast.

-        A comedy series that became a cult classic among my friendship group while we were at University was I Am Not an Animal, and if ever I’m having a sofa day it’ll be the DVD I’ll seek out. It was written by Peter Baynham of (amongst many other hilarious things) The Day Today and Alan Partridge fame, and I think the man can do no wrong.

-        I love going to watch stand-up, and I’m really excited about Richard Herring and in particular Sara Pascoe coming to Liverpool in the next few weeks.

-        The Mighty Boosh radio show CDs live in my car, and are a brilliant accompaniment to long drives, the songs in particular are genius, and some didn’t make it over to the TV show.

-        I love Spinal Tap, but all of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries are amazing – Best In Show is a favourite of mine, and living with a folk musician I’d have to put A Mighty Wind up there too.

-        My favourite blog is World of Crap – her attempt to eat 36 trios is sublime, as are her incredulous summaries of episodes of Rainbow.

-        Anything written by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris – from the adult Ladybird books to Philomena Cunk to the Framley Examiner, anything they have a writing credit on is guaranteed to be hilarious.

-        Barely a day goes by when I don’t slip an Alan Partridgeism in to my every day speech. I have some friends to whom I’ve barely said a word that isn’t a Partridge quote, such is our obsession.

-        I think Chris Morris is largely responsible for my dark sense of humour. My DVDs of the Day Today and Brass Eye are always on heavy rotation, and Four Lions, his feature film about extremists attempting to target the London Marathon, is underrated in my opinion.

-        Finally, another podcast I subscribe to is the Guilty Feminist podcast with Sophie Hagen and Deborah Frances-White. Tackling issues from body hair to the ability to say no to harassment on public transport, it’s hilarious and extremely thought provoking. Recommended.


Maneesh Kuruvilla is a research postgraduate at the University of St Andrews:

- Podcasts are a godsend when trying to power through the more monotonous aspects of research. My personal favourites include 'My Dad Wrote a Porno' and the weekly edition of 'Ring Rust Radio,' a must for all wrestling fans (yes, it's perfectly fine for grown men to follow wrestling). - For absolute musical comedy genius, you can't go wrong with Tim Minchin and Flight of the Conchords.  Professor Sophie Scott, University College London: 

There are a couple of old films I can watch over and over again, and which still make me laugh (as long as I can watch them with Tom Manly): Throw Moma from the Train, and Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

I love to see comedy performed live – Sarah Millican, Sara Pascoe, Al Murray, Robin Ince, Stewart Lee, Jerry Seinfeld.

Listening to Danny Baker in 2004 we first heard Dirty Fan Male. Quite the rudest and funniest thing in the world. So worth seeing live.

Tony Hancock Hancock’s Half Hour radio programs are all available and have lasted incredibly well, considering they were broadcast between 1954 and 1959. So well written and so extremely well performed – there are points in it when the audience are just howling with delighted laughter and it feels utterly timeless.

I can remember my parents heading off to see Morecambe and Wise performing in Blackpool, when I was around 7 or 8. I thought it was immensely unfair that I was not allowed to join them, and I still feel this way. As anyone whom I have forced into a pantomime can attest, I have an enduring love for Morecambe and Wise and I find their musical routines especially amusing.

My dad bought me Coming From Behind by Howard Jacobsen around 30 years ago and I still read it regularly – it’s extremely funny and absolutely nails a whole set of academic tropes and characters.

I also really enjoy TV sitcoms – from The Mighty Boosh, the Goodies, 30 Rock, Parks and Rec, Seinfeld. My current love is for Crazy Ex Girlfriend which is simply fantastic and has some very good psychology jokes. 


 Dr Mairead McSweeney is at University College London:

Modern Family. The Office. Fawlty Towers. And Best in Show.


Kirsty Graham is a PhD Student in the School of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews:

- For when I want to consume news and critical analysis, but I don’t want to cry for an hour afterwards: John Oliver on Last Week Tonight. Always on point. Political, intellectual, hilarious.

- I love the musical comedy of Tim Minchin, but some of those might be a bit sweary to recommend. Instead, if you want a real life-affirming laugh, check out his UWA Address 2013.

- My Twitter feed is mostly research, with a fair sprinkling of comedic animal accounts: Black Metal Cats (@evilbmcats), WeRateDogs™ (@dog_rates). Oh, and rock climbing humour from Betamonkeys (@edpsych42)

- Once in a while Buzzfeed comes up with some ironic (feminist) advice columns, e.g. Hilary Mitchell on how to get a perfect bikini body or Hattie Soykan on how to be more attractive to men.


Dr Kate Cross is a Lecturer in the School of Psychology & Neuroscience at the University of St Andrews:

-       On Twitter: @AcademicsSay, @yourpapersucks, @SarachCAndersen,

-       While I’m sad that Victoria Wood is no longer with us, her songs still make me laugh. I also enjoy Fascinating Aida.

-       If I need cheering up for political reasons, it’ll often be the Dish and Dishonesty episode of Blackadder III (even though I am now pretty much word-perfect). Or I’ll watch The Thick Of It (which has yet to be beaten for inventive swearing).

-       I enjoy Reductress and McSweeney’s for satirical chortles and Wondermark, Manfeels Park, Webcomic Name, and Oglaf (don’t read it at work, folks) for webcomic giggles.

-       I still think Chapter 13 of The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul by Douglas Adams is the funniest thing ever written.


Dr Carolyn McGettigan is a Reader in the Department of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London:

-       I’m a huge fan of the Eurovision Song Contest, and have followed it closely (and non-ironically) since early childhood, when my native Ireland won pretty much every year. It’s brought a great deal of amusement along the way – if I need a quick fix of laughter then I have 5-10 “go-to” clips of songs from the Contest, and its many national selection shows, that are very likely to set me off. I share my love of the contest with my closest childhood friends, and so there’s by now 25 years of friendship bound up in a variety of silly costumes, key changes and wind machines. It’s these very happy shared memories that really make me laugh.

-       I’m not much of a fan of sitcoms, but two have really tickled me in recent years – Parks and Recreation and 30 Rock. A scene in Parks and Recreation involving an election campaign launch on an ice rink can get me laughing from just thinking about it.

-       I’m surprised at how much more laughter I enjoy when thinking about Ireland, compared with anything else. Spoof Facebook news pages like Pure Derry and The Ulster Fry showcase such keenly observed wit about the very lovely, but also very complicated and frustrating, place where I grew up. I consider London to be my home now, but it doesn’t meet my sense of humour in quite the right way.

-       I don’t laugh as much as I used to. When I worked in Sophie Scott’s lab at UCL, we ran an exhibit on laughter at the Royal Society Summer Science exhibition. At the time, I was struck by some of the older visitors commenting that they found themselves laughing less often than when they were younger. I didn’t expect I would make the same observation myself only a few years later, and I'm certainly not old. It’s interesting, especially as someone who uses laughter so frequently in research. I’m not sure whether I need to have more of a laugh, or even whether I miss it. Given the current political situation, I think most people are finding that life is a lot more serious at the moment. 


Dr Sally Marlow is at the National Addiction Centre, Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience:

Psychoville works for me, although I made the mistake of thinking it would work for my (then) 12-year-old son.... needless to say it didn't.  The Silent Singer traumatised him to the extent that he had to sleep in our bed for two weeks. Not now, Silent Singer, not now.  Disappointingly there were only two series - perhaps it was more terrifying than I realised.  

Being a north easterner I love Vic and Bob in anything they turn their hands to, but special mentions for the enduring Shooting Stars, and the relatively recent House of Fools, with its supporting cast of Beef, Erik and Julie. House of Fools also only lasted two series.  I am sensing a pattern here....... 


Dr Tom Manly, UK Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit:

- Ideally I would shy away from perennial poll-favourite Fawlty Towers but it still has the power to render me soundless with laughter. There is a perfect empathy/enmity towards Basil and his (our) ridiculous hang-ups.  His building hysteria at the unravelling storm is ours. Bits of it have, of course, aged horribly but in places it seems to have absolutely perfected the timing and beats of the farce.

Monty-Python, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Blackadder. Almost nothing about these makes me laugh anymore because this near continuous stream of influence is internalised as my voice (and, yes, its a white middle class male voice “Mr Dent?” “Er, Hello, yes?”). Seinfeld has a similar power; just 10 minutes and you are thinking “What’s the deal with chopsticks!?".  It is hard to imagine a drama being able to deliver such a complete and largely unconscious personality graft.

Life. Its an old sore but nothing in comedy can touch actual life. There is something particularly wonderful (and I am sure psychologically beneficial) when you can laugh helplessly at your own stupidity.

Repetition. I don’t know why repetition is funny but the stand-up comedian’s “call-back” almost always is. At the beginning of the show she is talking to the audience and finds out that someone called Alan is an accountant. Later she is talking about anything and says “Alan will understand this…” and its funny. Extravagant repetition is also very funny (Homer Simpson electrocutes himself reaching for food and then immediately reaches for it again…and again…and again…and again). Predictive coding be damned! (…and again).


Dr Jon Sutton is Managing Editor of The Psychologist:

-       I think psychologists have shown an increasing willingness to laugh at themselves over the years. The line between comedy and reality can be pretty thin… I have found the April Fools we have had on our Research Digest blog pretty funny, but they have been taken as fact on more than one occasion!

-       ‘Grey fluffy clouds’, Alan Parker’s take on The Orb track, is hilarious – particularly if you loved the original and grew up anywhere near Watford!

-       If there’s any justice in the world, Stewart Lee will be revered by generations to come as a genius. ‘Pea green boat’, his deconstruction of Edward Lear’s ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, gets me every time.

-       Channel 4’s Smack the Pony, the all-female sketch show, was underrated and probably unfairly pigeonholed.

-       Some audiobooks are much funnier than reading the printed word: listening to Steve Coogan do the ‘I, Partridge’ books as I cycle to work is actually dangerous.

-       As the stand-up James Acaster has pointed out, the first person to pretend to hold the Eiffel Tower in the palm of their hand, or prop up the Leaning Tower of Pisa, must have been a legend. For an internet meme take on visual illusions, search for ‘Vadering’ and ‘Hadoukening’.

-       At the moment I am enjoying Inside No.9, and worrying my wife by coming up with even more twisted and macabre endings than it already has.

-       Funniest Twitter accounts: @sophiescott for psychology, @vizcomic still, and @GalacticKeegan for a bizarre flight of fancy.

-       Billy Bragg is pretty funny anyway – the last line of ‘Walk away Renee’ is both heartbreaking and hilarious – but Bill Bailey’s ‘Unisex chip shop tribute takes him to a new level.

-       Dad Jokes, which I have discussed at length and share mercilessly on Twitter.

-       Groundhog Day. Over and over.


If you would like to take part, leave your comments below (BPS members only), tweet @psychmag or email the editor on [email protected]

See also 'How many psychologists does it take to explain a joke?' and other pieces from our April 2013 'comedy special'.