How Spike Milligan had the last laugh - and the best

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Heard the one about the man whose joke was judged the funniest ever? He died before they could give him the prize.

After spending nearly five years trying to track the origins of the world's funniest joke, Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, has traced it back to Spike Milligan, who wrote the gag before he became famous as part of The Goon Show.

Dr Wiseman spent 12 months researching the world's most popular joke in 2001-2 for the LaughLab project on behalf of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. The winning joke runs like this:"Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps: 'My friend is dead! What can I do?' The operator says: 'Calm down, I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead.' There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says: 'OK, now what?' "

Dr Wiseman has established that the original version of the gag was written by Spike Milligan. A study of rare footage from 1951 showing the Goons in their first television appearance has an early version of the joke performed by Milligan's fellow Goons Michael Bentine and Peter Sellers.

The Sixties script reads:

Bentine: I just came in and found him lying on the carpet there.

Sellers: Oh, is he dead?

Bentine: I think so.

Sellers: Hadn't you better make sure?

Bentine: Alright. Just a minute.

Sound of two gun shots.

Bentine: He's dead.

Dr Wiseman contacted Milligan's daughter and she is certain that he would have written the gag. "It is very unusual to be able to track down the source of a joke as most are passed on by word of mouth, so you don't know where they come from but this one definitely looks as though it was penned by Spike Milligan in 1951," said Dr Wiseman, who is speaking on the Science of Laughter at the Cheltenham Science Festival, which runs until Sunday. "It formed part of one of the very early Goon sketches on a show called London Entertains, which is pre-Goon Show but has the team performing some Goon-style sketches on it."

Spike Milligan died in 2002, not suspecting that his joke would be judged the funniest ever.

Dr Wiseman also asked some of the leading scientists in the UK, including professors Steve Jones, Lewis Wolpert, Colin Pillinger, Harry Kroto and Susan Greenfield, to submit jokes. These were then judged alongside jokes written by the public and the best efforts of a computer to examine the idea that scientists are serious people with a poor sense of humour.

The results revealed that the scientists' favourite jokes compared favourably with those submitted by the public, but were thought less funny than some of the computer-generated gags.

Joke file: Scientists vs computers

Scientists' favourites:

* A man walking down the street sees another man with a very big dog. One man says to the other: "Does your dog bite?" The man replies: "No my dog doesn't." The man pats the dog, which bites his hand: "I thought you said your dog didn't bite," said the injured man. " That's not my dog," replied the other.

* A brain and a jump-lead go into a pub. The brain orders two pints from the barman, but the barman refuses to serve him. When asked why, the barman replies: 'Well, you're clearly out of your head, and your friend looks as if he's about to start something.'

The computer's favourites:

Q: What kind of murderer has fibre?

A: A cereal killer

Q: What kind of contest can you drive on?

A: A duel carriageway.

Q: What kind of line has 16 balls?

A: A pool queue.

Q: What kind of pig do you avoid at a party?

A: A wild bore.

Q: What do you call a ferocious nude?

A: A grizzly bare.