back to article Computing boffins strip the fun out of satirical headlines

Looking for a laugh? You should seek out the ends of satirical headlines and phrases with nouns in them, according to a pair of computer boffins. The duo, Robert West from École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland, and Eric Horvitz from Microsoft Research, are the latest academics to try to suck the fun out of …

  1. Wellyboot Silver badge

    Private-Eye hacks worried?

    Possibly not, and humour is all in the recipients perception. (along with the option to sue)

    *For left pondians, Private-Eye is a satirical mag that has been taking the P*** on current events since the early 60's while also pointing out hypocrisy and hubris.

    1. The Man Who Fell To Earth Silver badge

      Re: Private-Eye hacks worried?

      Humor is strongly cultural and language context sensitive. What is funny in one culture or language may not even be transferable into another culture or language.

      1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

        Re: Private-Eye hacks worried?

        Just ask the Dane's how well satire travels.

        1. jake Silver badge

          Re: Private-Eye hacks worried?

          Ask the Dane's what how well satire works?

      2. Charles 9 Silver badge

        Re: Private-Eye hacks worried?

        Not to mention history can play a role in the source of jokes. For example, only someone familiar with the heyday of Caribbean piracy in the 17th century would get the sarcastic remark, "Good luck, Blackbeard!" And what about the history of the word "Spam"? Would it make sense outside Western culture and other places where the canned pork product is commonplace?

      3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

        Re: What is funny in one culture or language may not even be transferable into another...

        That is the reason why English speakers often find German speakers to lack humor. The thing is, it is impossible in the German language to tack on a word at the end of the sentence to change the sense - which is what at least 50% of English-speaking humorists do.

        In other words, English-speaking humorists have it easy.

        1. Robert Helpmann?? Silver badge

          Re: What is funny in one culture or language may not even be transferable into another...

          That is the reason why English speakers often find German speakers to lack humor...

          It's not the language that causes this perception; it is definitely the culture. The researchers in the article are identified as being from a Swiss university and Microsoft. I cannot for the life of me think of a famous comedian that has come out of either environment.

          1. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

            Re: What is funny in one culture or language may not even be transferable into another...

            Die Schweizerdeutschen sind kein Deutsch.

            1. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

              Re: What is funny in one culture or language may not even be transferable into another...

              Entschuldigung. That doesn't really work if not heard.


              Dee [sing-song, mocking, OTT:] SchhhvvvvVEItzuhDOOTS-JEN! [flat:] zint kein Doitsh.

    2. steviebuk Silver badge

      Re: Private-Eye hacks worried?

      And a lot of jokes can be insider jokes. Only recently discoverying it a few years ago, I have to keep Googling the insider names they give people or events. Nice explanation on wiki I found.

      And for where I worked. I used to give people funny names to try and remember their name. No one else would get it or find it funny but I always did. Someone called Bastible I called Basketball. Bill Clinton to someone who reminded me of him looks wise. Cashin became Ca-ching and so on.


  2. disgustedoftunbridgewells Silver badge

    To automate comedy it would be sensible to start at where comedy is at its most mechanical: BBC's comedy panel show output.

    Alternatively the Jack Whitehall school of "Oops, I accidentally fell over." 'comedy' might be something possible for a machine to implement.

    1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      To make you really laugh, comedy will almost always make you think even when you weren't planning to think - good comedy reveals insights. I suspect all the boffins will do is make machines laugh (aka the BBC shows) - I can't see them ever reaching the level of the Goon Show and other human performers.

      1. ArrZarr Silver badge

        Goanna be honest, the Goon Show never made me think - the mental exercise achieved while listening was more along the lines of keeping up with whatever crazy bollocks was happening...on the radio version of "On Screen".

        That being said, Spike Milligan's approach to humor seems to have been to keep throwing jokes at the script/book until there was *something* to make you laugh. I'm pretty sure that at no point in his 83 years did he ever meet a joke he didn't like.

        1. Version 1.0 Silver badge

          "The best cure for sea sickness is to sit under a tree." - Spike Milligan

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I'd rather (not) Jack

      Designing an AI that could meet Jack Whitehall's level of comedy "talent" would be far and away the easiest bit.

      The hardest part in designing an AI that could match his level of success would be making it sufficiently convincing as an extremely privileged former public schoolboy that went to The Right School to ingratiate it with similar types in the industry.

      On top of which it'd probably help a lot to have some sort of father that already worked in entertainment and had all the right contacts.

      Then again, I'm sure it would get there on talent alone, just like Whitehall did!

    3. W.S.Gosset Silver badge

      > Alternatively the Jack Whitehall school of "Oops, I accidentally fell over." 'comedy' might be something possible for a machine to implement.


      Windows falls over all the time.


      Granted, it's not very funny...

  3. Herring`

    The problem is, it's 2019 and increasingly difficult for anyone to tell the difference between actual news and satire.

    1. Flakk

      Not to mention that humor is increasingly found to be "problematic".

    2. Version 1.0 Silver badge

      Sure - but that's because these days we just re-tweet anything without thinking about it. Humour in today's world is just a laugh track at the BBC, there's no need to think at all.

  4. Jason Bloomberg Silver badge

    "Satire reverse engineered. Honest"

    I don't think many headlines are ever as funny as the writer may think they are, but it's not half as bad as watching the DVD extras and having the cast, producers and crew tell the viewer how utterly hilarious and how 'laugh out loud' funny their film was. We'll be the judge of that.

    1. Simon Harris Silver badge
      IT Angle

      Re: "Satire reverse engineered. Honest"

      I found Graham Linehan's commentary tracks on the IT Crowd DVDs very interesting with his insights into script writing, what worked and what didn't.

      1. VikiAi
        Thumb Up

        Re: "Satire reverse engineered. Honest"

        Yes, if you get a well-grounded speaker who can stay in their area of expertise and tell you actual interesting things about the production process, commentary tracks can be gold! I am not sure I have ever heard such a track from an actor or director that wasn't just 'funny' gossip, though (some is at least tolerable, much quickly becomes cringeworthy!). Tracks by production crew, though, have proven most interesting and even enjoyable to me at times.

  5. LenG

    Was this phrase supposed to be satirical?

    "It is hard to imagine a computer passing a rich Turing test without being able to understand and produce humor."

    There are a significant number of humans unable to produce humour. Unfortunately a lot of them write comedy shows for Radio 4.

    1. I ain't Spartacus Gold badge

      Re: Was this phrase supposed to be satirical?

      But humour is a matter of taste, experience and culture. So very tricky to make something that pleases everyone.

      For example, in my early 20s I found Dilbert to be mildly amusing. I'd had various jobs and been a student. Then in my mid 20s I went to work for a US multi-national - and I found Dilbert to be amazingly funny.

      I never particularly liked The Office, The Mighty Boosh or Little Britain. But that doesn't mean they're not funny, just that I don't like them. Plenty of other people did.

      So Radio 4 caters to a wide audience and produced two of the above 3 before telly took them over. As well as giving us the amazing John Finnemore and his Souvenir Program and Cabin Pressure.

      "Yellow car."

      Although they do also give a go to young writers, and sometimes I listen to the output and wonder why. However we've recently had plenty of good stuff too. Tez Ilyas (Tez Talks), It's a Fair Cop, Clue continues to work well (shame about Just a Minute).

      1. ibmalone Silver badge

        Re: Was this phrase supposed to be satirical?

        Some awful stuff makes it on, one programme that I feel no need to look up made me genuinely wonder whether anyone had listened to it before it went out. However, this is largely because they only have one John Finnemore and need about five.

        Or if you enjoy sticking it to R4...

        Black dog.

    2. Kubla Cant Silver badge

      Re: Was this phrase supposed to be satirical?

      I find that a small number of brilliant comedy shows on R4 excuse the drek.

      The thing I can never understand is the BBC's belief that a completely un-funny script automatically becomes hilarious if the actors deliver it in Northern accents.

  6. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

    Their examples remind me of the saying that a German joke is a very serious affair.

  7. Shaha Alam

    what's the need for satire when the reality is often stupid enough?

    we can safely hardcode 'satire=false' into the ai's root config and make it easier for the poor thing.

  8. Michael H.F. Wilkinson Silver badge

    Ig Nobel prize in the offing?

    Sounds like a good candidate

  9. Not Enough Coffee

    "Human–computer interactions will never be truly natural without giving users the option to say something funny and have it understood that way," the paper stated.

    I don't need a computer to understand "funny". When I contact customer service it's because I already couldn't find the answer online, so it's not going to be a simple question that the AI can parse. I end up getting passed along to a human anyway, which means the AI interaction was a waste of my time. Making the AI try to be funny is only going to piss me off.

    1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

      "When I contact customer service it's because I already couldn't find the answer online, so it's not going to be a simple question that the AI can parse. I end up getting passed along to a human anyway, which means the AI interaction was a waste of my time."

      That's because, like most of the readers here, you are exceptionally intelligent. The vast majority of people who call any Customer Service line can't find their arse with either or both hands so the so-called AI or button press "jail" solves about 90% of the issues.

      Maybe those systems should have an intelligence test at the start. Those who pass get through to a human :-)

  10. Mr Benny

    No danger of that with El Reg headlines.

    Most of them are student rag level "funny" with worn out puns and other "gags" that even a Daily Star sub

    would toss in the reject pile.

  11. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

    Better safe than sorry.

    If AI is required to judge whether the user is joking or not, the "Little Lost Robot" scenario (i.e. danger of death) could arise. Those who don't like BBC humour nowadays may prefer a machine that defaults to saying "¿Que?" when instructions are unclear.

  12. Mark 85 Silver badge

    Do boffins have a sense of humor (or humour)?

    My impression is that this group really doesn't have a sense of humor but feel the need to pick it apart maybe so they can understand it. Then again.... who knows why they chose this topic.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Maybe a better waste of time would be a generator of amusing headlines for real stories. My favourite from this parish was "Slap for Slack chat app after US, Canada chaps zapped in Iranian IP address map whack".

    I look forward to a future of snarky AI.

  14. A-nonCoward


    this is silly. I just read the title, as to the article, tl;dr.

    Very simple, sophomoric: anything with the word spill is some attempt at a joke or satire. There are words like that. Doesn't require any AI to figure.

    OK, let's assume it's a tree-hugger article. "We need to prevent oil spills". Then, perhaps it's as complicated as word-pairs: oil spill prevent good, resume, bad.

    "Resume" is Good when together with positive events: study, work, effort to save the turtles.

    etc. AI. Did that in the '90s. Ain't better since.

  15. jake Silver badge

    May I fix that for you?

    AI. Did that in the '60s. Ain't better since.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Innterrupted defense mechanism

    Considering how few human comedians are actually funny, and how often even those lose their touch, the idea of training what's basically a bunch of logic gates to do it successfully seems very far fetched. I would insert a joke here, but I won't live long enough to travel that far.

  17. Voland's right hand Silver badge

    The findings are specific for the germanic sub-group of the indo-European languages

    I am glad that someone in the west finally pays some attention to mathematical linguistic analysis. For the part of the world which used to be on _OTHER_ side of the Iron Curtain a lot of this is yesterday's news.

    First of all, they have been paying serious attention to mathematical linguistic analysis for many decades (*). In fact, when I was in high school, one of the reasons geeks bothered attending the CS and Math competitions was that they were co-located with the mathematical linguistics ones. Lots of lovely ladies from the grammar high schools with language orientation. Cough, cough, snigger, snigger... As a side effect, geeks like me attending the CS junkets ended up picking some bits about language by osmosis (facilitated by the rivers of wine and beer in the local restaurants after the competitions ended).

    Second, the analysis of English (and Germanic language subgroup) humour comparatively to let's say Russian (as well as other Slavic languages) is something that has been done and dusted decades ago. The "funny bit coming at the end" is specific to English (and other languages from the same subgroup). In Russian it can come anywhere as instead of "situation" humour it is predominantly "multiple meaning/positional" humour. They still grok situation humour though, they just consider it second rate. As a result English humour can be translated into Russian (Jerom K Jerom translation is as good as the original) while Russian often cannot (Russians are rolling on the floor laughing at a Chekov play while English are crying in tears about "how tragic"). Things get even funkier once you go into Turk languages and other languages with different grammar structure compared to Indo-European.

    In any case, applause and let's have more of that instead of throwing everything in the AI meatgrinder.

    (*)The area has a lot of interesting results like for example you can use language analysis to figure out who influences whom. In fact, you can get a much better idea than from social network activity, especially if you combine it with modern statistical methods and modern number-crunching.

  18. Adam 1

    algorithm is actually pretty easy for headlines

    bool IsHumourous(string headline)


    return Soundex(headline)==Soundex('Supercalifragilisticexpialadocious');


  19. julianh72

    "Boffins conclude AI humour not very punny"

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