Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Prime Numbers Are Funny

 Occasionally I get the question, "Steverino, how can I write things funny?"  Actually  .  .  .  no one has ever asked me that.  And  .  .  .  nobody ever calls me Steverino.

But I do have a comedy tip for you today that you can use even if you are not a funny person.  This is something I noticed when I was writing some the earlier articles on this site.

Someone trying to write funny, if he or she is doing it right, pays attention to every single word, every single piece of punctuation.  The cadence of each sentence, and the rhythm when one strings sentences together.  How the text looks on the page.   We've all thought it:  That was a good joke, but he told it badly.  Works the same with text.  The smallest decision can have an impact on creating the proper gestalt for the generation of yuks.

Not everyone can write amusingly, and I can tell you for a fact that a number of commenters on this website would place me among the "not everyone" group.  But I am here to pass along to you one of the overlooked rules of comedy which you may use to add (what I concede is a very incremental quantum of) humor to your writing:

Prime numbers are funny.

Prime numbers, you will recall, are those integers that have only two positive integer factors -- one and themselves. So an even number can never be a prime, because it is divisible by 2 (as well as one and itself).  For example:

What I should have said is that prime numbers are funnier than non-prime numbers.  As the foregoing illustration suggests, a prime number alone is not enough to elicit chuckles -- rather, when used in preference to a non-primes when a sentence calls for the invention of a number, it tends to set the stage for the actual point of your gag-in-chief better than any other kind of number. 
So if you are drafting something light-hearted, and you need to make up a number, remember:   11 is funnier than 10 or 9 or 12; 17 is funnier than 16 or 18, or, for that matter, its odd brother 15.  But the real hilarity starts in the mid-double-digits:  61, 53.  And the funniest primes of all are those with more syllables:  47, 97.

I should add the qualification that if you need a particularly large number, or a decimal, the rule in its refined form is that the significant digits of the number should be a prime number.  So even though 673,000 is not a prime number, it is funnier than 674,000.  When I needed a fractional number for a exagerratedly small number of megapixels in the first article on this site, I used .079. 

You probably recall chortling uncontrollably.

As noted, even numbers are not amusing.  Imaginary numbers sound like they should be funny, but can really deflate a jape.  Transcendental numbers actually make the reader dislike the writer, and complex numbers bring even the most riotous tale to a complete stop.  Irrational numbers:  tragic.  Whole numbers -- well, they're only distinguished from counting numbers by the presence of zero, which is only funny as a punch line, for example:  "To calculate the number of times Marcus got lucky at P.J. Clarke's in a year, you take the amount of money he's spent there rounded to the nearest grand, times the inverse average relative humidity in the men's room, divided by the square root of the standard deviation of the distribution of ages of the women claiming to him that they're single.  Then you take that quotient and multiply by zero."  See.  Could be funny in a better joke, but you get the idea.

Why should this be so?  I believe there are three reasons:

(1) Things that are unexpected are funnier than things that are expected.  Prime numbers are of equal dignity with other integers, but because they are never the result of multiplication or division (other than when appearing as significant digits in non-primes), they appear in our daily lives marginally less frequently than other numbers, especially counting (natural) numbers.  They are thus marginally more unexpected and thus of marginal positive comedy value when employed in preference to non-primes.

(2)  They never appear in childhood multiplication tables, and thus do not have about them the faintly unwelcome fragrance of non-primes that were the answers to drills we resented when we were children.   That is, it's not so much that primes are so side-splitting -- it's that other natural numbers are so dreary.

(3)  There is something inherently funny about prime numbers that cannot be described.  I think maybe it's that they're exotic and mysterious -- theorums relating to large prime numbers remain under study -- but not so conceptually difficult that people don't feel just a little cool and proud that they know what prime numbers are.  For example, would this website be funny if it related to any other type of number?   (Link:  vulgarity alert.)

Alas, with the migration of childhood arithmetic to calculators, primes will probably lose their slight appeal to our subconscious, and their laff-riot potential will fade.  In the meantime, if you are a comedy blogger, switch the significant digits of all of your discretionary numerical references to primes and I can almost guarantee that you, too, can attract upwards of 13 unique hits a day.

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[NOTE on 1-4-13:  The Farrelly brothers are about to release a new comedy.  What did they call it?  Movie 47.  I'm telling you, men and women, I'm on to something here.]


  1. I've thought about your column a lot and I really think you are overthinking this issue.

    Your friend in math,
    The Strick

  2. Wow -- thinking "a lot" about an already overthought column, and then "thinking" that it is overthought. Well, my goal was to make people think.

    Hey, sorry about the net neutrality thing. Best to the fam.

  3. I enjoyed your article, and predict that 2011 will be a funny year. :-)

  4. Thanks, G.L. All I know is, my ribs hurt all the way through 2003.