The following are excerpts from an article by Tad Friend called "What's So Funny?" It was published in the November 11, 2002, issue of The New Yorker.
When scientists begin to diagram comedy, most comedians and comedy writers respond by saying, essentially, "Move along. Nothing to see here." Comedy is more art than science, its practitioners believe, and it's an art created not according to algorithms or invariate laws but in flashes of intuition fuelled by potato chips. In the late nineteen-eighties, before Conan O'Brien became a talk-show host, he wrote for "Saturday Night Live." His colleague Greg Daniels (who went on to co-create "King of the Hill") would often scribble pointers from Jim Downey, the show's producer, on scraps of paper. O'Brien offered an instructive rhyme of his own: "When you overthink, you start to stink."
Certain numbers are held to be wittier or more ludicrous than others: seventeen is generally considered pretty amusing, as are most primes, but the writers for Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows" believed that the funniest number was thirty-two. And many offbeat words have a comic valence. Woody Allen has relied on "feathers," "herring," "butter," and "dwarf"; Mel Brooks is fond of "nectarine" and "Saran Wrap." In the book "Comedy Techniques for Writers & Performers," Melvin Helitzer maintains that among the funniest names are Gladys, Chuck, José, Hortense, and Lucky Pierre; that funny occupations include kamikaze, layman, and beggar; and that the funniest word in food is a Twinkie.
In Neil Simon's play "The Sunshine Boys," an old vaudevillian, Willie, says:
"Alka Seltzer is funny. You say 'Alka Seltzer' and you get a laugh.....Fifty-seven years I'm in this business, you learn a few things.... Words with a 'K' in it are funny.... Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny.... Casey Stengel, that's a funny name; Robert Taylor is not funny."
The power of "k" has become comedy lore. The book "Step by Step to Stand-Up Comedy," by Greg Dean, asserts, "Hard consonant sounds, especially K sounds, which include hard C, Qu, and, to a lesser extent, T, P, hard G, D and B, tend to make words sound funnier." The comic Wendy Liebman told me that she's always trying to write a joke that ends with "kayak."...
Neil Simon is distressed that his monologue spawned such a hard-and-fast rule, believing that true comedy emerges from character. "Tricks like that are for beginners," he says. "It's like assessing a great football player by the way he laces up his shoes." When I visited Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," in his office recently, he echoed Simon's complaint. "There isn't any insider formula of 'sexual reference plus Jew plus "k-word" equals funny,'" he says.