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Last Updated: Friday, 9 June 2006, 12:49 GMT 13:49 UK
Spike 'wrote world's best joke'
Spike Milligan
Spike Milligan died in 2002
Comedian Spike Milligan was the author of the world's funniest joke, a psychology professor has claimed.

Professor Richard Wiseman carried out an internet experiment five years ago to find the world's best gag.

A joke about two US hunters who go into the woods topped the poll after more than 100,000 people around the world cast their vote on 40,000 jokes.

Professor Wiseman said the gag almost certainly originated from a 1951 Goons sketch written by Milligan.

He told the BBC News website he was watching a TV show after the comedian's death in 2002 when he saw an archive clip of The Goons sketch.

The circumstances in the sketch were different to the joke - it was set in a house in England, rather than woods in New Jersey - but the punchline was identical.

"It was a very, very weird coincidence," Professor Wiseman said.

"It was a very obscure Goons archive and it just happened to be the joke that won the Laugh Lab poll."

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.

Professor Wiseman said he contacted Milligan's daughter Sile, who said she was confident it had been written by her father.

He said it was very rare to be able to track down the origin of any joke, as they are usually passed on by word of mouth.

"We will never know for certain if it wasn't something he heard and incorporated into a sketch, but that's unlikely, as he was a prolific writer of his own material," he said.

Professor Wiseman said the joke contained all three elements of what makes a good gag - anxiety, a feeling of superiority, and an element of surprise.

"It plays on the death theme and it makes us feel superior to the complete idiot who does not understand," he said.

Richard Wiseman.  Photo credit: Brian Fischbacher
Professor Wiseman recognised the joke from a vintage Goons clip

"It also has the surprise element as we don't see the death coming."

Professor Wiseman, of the University of Hertfordshire, said he was "delighted" that Milligan was behind the winner.

"I actually much prefer the Spike Milligan one because it is in a much funnier setting.

"I think Spike was a genius with that great kind of surreal humour.

"He actually once wrote a sketch about finding the world's funniest joke so it's a fantastic quirk."

Milligan, who died in 2002 at the age of 83, was one of the UK's most respected performers and was known to millions as one of the founding members of The Goons.

Together with Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine and Harry Secombe, the quartet helped redefine comedy programmes for a generation.

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead! What can I do?" The operator, in a calm soothing voice says: "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now what?"

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