Why Jokes Go Viral

Jokes, despite their popularity and widespread sharing across the Internet, are not a new concept. From a very young age we learn the setup of a joke, and very quickly catch on to the pattern of joke telling: someone shares a joke, I find it funny, and days later retell the joke to a group of friends, family or coworkers. Maybe some time later one of them will tell it at a party and the chain goes on. Jokes can play an integral role in socializing; in fact, certain people seem like nothing more than joke perpetuation machines and would be lost without their repeatable nature.

How do they work? Why do we spread them on? And how can I engineer more infectious jokes?


Two fish in a tank.
One turns to the other and says: Do you know how to drive this?

The human experience is full of cognitive dissonance and disconnects; incidents where our perception and our reality clash. Evolutionarily, these episodes can be scary at best, and deadly at worst. If you’re not expecting a certain type of berry to be poisonous and you go out and forage them for dinner, perception and reality can very quickly clash in a toxic fashion. Our ancestors lived in constant fear of being the last to know some vital piece of information, and it is scarcity that makes knowledge valuable and contagious; you’re not doing your tribal duty if you don’t tell everyone which berries will kill you.

Urban legends demonstrate a similar trait called delayed orientation. The protagonist is operating under commonly held assumptions: her perception of the scratching on the roof of her boyfriend’s car on that darkened lovers’ lane tells her not to go check it out. In the morning, it turns out it was her boyfriend, hung upside down by the serial killer and she could have saved him–if only that information wasn’t so scarce.

Perception colliding with reality causes goosebumps. And we love sharing goosebumps–they’re contagious.

Jokes address that tension and resolve it in a nonthreatening manner. Remember that swine flu joke graphic with the little kid licking the pig’s nose? Catharsis. See the 1963 Tanzanian contagious laughter outbreak as another example.

A patient says: Doctor, last night I made a Freudian slip, I was having dinner with my mother-in-law and wanted to say: Could you please pass the butter. But instead I said: You silly cow, you have completely ruined my life.”

If you want to mastermind your own humor pandemic, play on existing incongruities.

Joke Cycles

A joke cycle is a collection of jokes that revolve around a single event, idea or person. They tend to start quickly, in memetic waves, and die unfunny deaths just as soon as they began. Cycle-based jokes often recycle old structures with the new topic; how many times have we heard the same joke, just different names? Cycles commonly address topics of great societal unease like swine flu, celebrity deaths, and the Challenger disaster; they’re like catharsis epidemics.

In 1993’s Healing with Humor, Dr Arthur Asa Berge says “whenever there is a popular joke cycle, there generally is some widespread kind of social and cultural anxiety, lingering below the surface, that the joke cycle helps people deal with.”

In your humor laboratory, base your jokes on those moments of cultural tension.


Before you can retell a joke, you must be able to remember it. Specific details in a joke can help create a mental image of the scene, aiding in recall. However, these minutiae are easy to lose or mutate between tellings–successful jokes don’t depend on fine-grain elements, they are enhanced by them.

The unexpectedness that makes a joke funny can also make it hard to recall, as the human mind finds it easier to store information types we’ve dealt with before. This is why the most clichd jokes are often the easiest to remember. Contagious and funny jokes frequently make use of a new-old model, where either new content is shoehorned into an old structure, or a old content is reworked into a new structure.

Why did the chicken cross the road?

DR. SEUSS: Did the chicken cross the road? Did he cross it with a toad? Yes, The chicken crossed the road, But why it crossed, I’ve not been told!

KARL MARX: It was an historical inevitability.

BILL CLINTON: I did not cross the road with THAT chicken. What do you mean by chicken? Could you define chicken, please?

ERNEST HEMINGWAY: To die. In the rain. Alone.

State-dependent memory and sensorial triggers can also aid the recall process. Some people have a joke they tell every single time they’re drunk. And some people have jokes they tell every time someone says a certain word or phrase.

Make sure your viral joke is easy to remember.

Social Setting

I always look for a woman who has a tattoo. I see a woman with a tattoo, and Im thinking, okay, heres a gal whos capable of making a decision shell regret in the future.

What’s the first thing you do before telling a joke? You look around you. Once you remember a joke, the social setting you find yourself decides if you will tell it. Off-color jokes are the most obvious example, but there are other, more subtle variations exist. People in “high-culture” environments often refrain from telling jokes at all, preferring witty retorts to canned material. Gender often plays a roll as in the stereotype of “ladies who don’t tell jokes and sluts who laugh at dirty jokes.”

Be aware of your target demographics’ social considerations when constructing quips.


Twitter is the perfect petri dish to test out your jokes. Throw a few ideas against the wall and see which are ReTweeted.

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