It signifies little that the entertainment industry should launch a campaign to discover the world's funniest joke, or America's best dressed woman, or even the world's sexiest bottom, but it's a sign of the times when a university does it.
The University of Hertfordshire has launched a website to discover the world's sexiest bottom. You can send in a photograph of your bottom, and look at galleries of bottoms which you then rate on a scale of very sexy to not at all sexy. The results are collated and announced monthly and integrated into an academic study to determine almost nothing at all.
Oh, all right, it's not true. The University of Hertfordshire wouldn't do anything so stupid. The research methodology being flawed, the rating being crude, the demographics being uncertain, the results being meaningless.
No, they're doing it with jokes, but it comes to the same thing. Some people find particular bottoms sexy at certain times in their lives and in different situations. It's so mysterious, intricate and subjective as to be impenetrable. Certain experiences in the shrubbery when I was five years old, for instance, wouldn't interest me at all now that I'm 50. So it is with jokes. The world's funniest joke is an idea with no academic content.
I didn't even understand the first filthy joke I ever heard, but we squealed like pigs for hours as we told it and retold it. It involved a young man called – how can I put it in a family broadsheet? – Johnny Have Sexual Intercourse With That Girl Faster! His mother called his name up the stairs. He replied: "I can't, ma. I'm having sexual intercourse with her as fast as I can."
Is that the funniest joke in the world? It certainly was when I was eight.
Young men like horrible jokes. Why do babies have that soft spot in the top of their heads? So nurses can carry them five at a time. Is that the funniest joke in the world? Between the ages of 14 and 32, up until the moment my son was born, it certainly would have been a contender.
Now I like the joke about the golfer who meets an angel and asks whether there are golf courses in heaven. There's good news and bad news about that. The good news is that the golf courses are luxurious, the greens impeccable and the rough is non existent. The bad news? "You're teeing off in 10 seconds." That doesn't make me laugh, it makes me cry. Does a joke that makes you sob suddenly make it the best in the world?
When Eliza made her famous exit in Pygmalion with the words "Not bloody likely", the laughter was so prolonged, so sustained, and so violent that it caused fainting fits. Perhaps that's the best joke in the world? For liberal-minded Edwardian theatre-goers attending without their mothers, it was.
My friend Willy likes horse jokes. A horse goes into a bar and the bar tender asks: "Why the long face?" I don't like horse jokes. I don't like cartoons in The New Yorker either. But so flaming what?
And then there's the problem of who is telling these wretched things. Ten years ago, my other friend, Mitch, the sometime attorney general of Rarotonga I may say, paid me the highest compliment possible.
I told the joke about the man in court – who'd spent time in a PoW camp – offering to use his knowledge of German to quiz the defendant. Told to find out the fellow's name, the little man suddenly screams: "Vot iss your name!" I told this to Mitch and he vomited.
Nothing has ever been funnier than that. Vomit is the only true rating of the world's funniest joke. But you just can't put it on the internet.