Funny Numbers

The leadership of my high school in the early 70s was, I presume, pretty typical for a suburban Melbourne school. It was not unkind, but it was authoritative and distant. Except for one guy, a deputy principal or something, who was a complete asshole. This one guy was always angry, always yelling at some kid for something, and forever stomping down the hallways. He also always held his head at a weird and pronounced tilt. And so, the students’ name for this asshole was 43 Degrees.

Thankfully, 43 Degrees left a couple years after I arrived, but his memory lived on. A few years after he’d left, I remember some kids talking about him. Except, they referred to him as 45 Degrees, which was wrong, for two reasons. Not only was it not the asshole’s name, it was also a worse name: “43 Degrees” was funny, and “45 Degrees” was not.

This came back to me recently, when I was visiting my brother Jeff in ICU. Jeff brought up The Beast With a Million Eyes, a schlock sci-fi movie that we had watched long, long ago. The “beast” in question turned out to be a hilariously small box-wire contraption, and so the movie became known to us as The Beast With Three Wires. Except, Jeff now referred to it as The Beast With Five Wires. Always a wordsmith, it was very unlike Jeff to be wrong like that. It was a sign, as if another were needed, that Jeff was struggling.

Choosing just the right numbers is a tricky, and too often overlooked, business. A seemingly minor change in a parameter or coefficient can make a problem much easier or harder; it can avoid or offer a distracting dead end. Textbook authors invariably spend way, way too little time considering the subtle and not-so-subtle effects of such choices.

The humour of choosing numbers is even trickier, since almost nothing about humour is easy to explain. “43 Degrees” is obviously funnier than “45 Degrees”, since 45 is too symmetric a choice. An explanation of the Wires is less clear, although the fact that “three wires” is funnier is obvious, at least to me.

Below is a clip from a forum featuring Sid Caesar and his writers from the legendary Your Show of Shows. In the clip they are recalling a writers’ meeting, where they had to figure out the funniest roulette number for the wonderful Imogene Coca to say in a skit; they are focussing on the sounds, although there is more to it. It’s a great clip.*


 *) I haven’t been able to locate the actual skit.

14 Replies to “Funny Numbers”

  1. Genuine question: do you think the more *random* a number sounds, the funnier it is, since the randomness creates some level of surprise?

    43 degrees is such an accurate number that it sounds as though some clever student had somehow actually measured the angle. 45 degrees, that sounds like a rough estimate.

    Five and three… perhaps a similar explanation.

    1. Hi, RF. I think you’re probably right about “43 degrees”, and why it’s so funny. The “three wires”, I’m not so sure it’s the same thing, although again 5 is too standard, here too base-tennish.

    2. The implied absurdity of a student measuring the exact tilt of Mr Degrees’ head definitely elevates the joke. Most people enjoy layered humour.

      Monty python has a slew of number jokes.
      I’ve always chuckled at a sketch where a minister is being interviewed about his government’s failure to deliver on their promise of building 88 thousand million billion houses a year.

      A perhaps more well know Python numbers bit is Cardinal Ximenez’s difficulty counting how many weapons the Inquisition has at their disposal (and later how many bus tickets to get to the courthouse).

      Douglas Adams is oft quoted as choosing 42 as the meaning of life because it is just “an ordinary, smallish number”, and thus fit the joke.

      Does any of this reveal why 3 wires are funnier than 5? Probably not. “Comic triples” are a common comedic device. Maybe 3 is just an inherently funny number. This would explain why the VCAA has had 3 maths subjects for a long time…

      1. Thanks, Wilba. Maybe the reasons for Adams’ “forty-two” is similar to Sid Caesar’s reasons for “thirty-two”: they’re ordinaryish numbers, and the “two” has a funny explosive sound.

        1. An opinion on Mr Adams choice of 42 was that in ASCII, the 42nd character is the asterisk.

          If true, that is quite funny (and thought-provoking) in and of itself.

  2. That’s Numberwang!

    (I’ve shown bits of this in class, and bits to various adults – it seems there are two reactions: lots of laughter; no laughter (and some confusion); and something in between.)

  3. Let me as usual fly off at a tangent.
    In the early 70s most car seats had no headrests. So when I was sitting at a red light and gently hit from behind, my neck received a jolt. Thought nothing of it and proceeded to exchange details with the dill who hit me.

    It was days later I woke with a stiff neck. My GP’s advice was to move my bed away from the louvered window, so I learned that nothing could be done. Photos of me at the time show my shoulders up around my ears. Slowly the problem travelled down my back, only delayed by weekly massage.

    It was the late 80s when I finally saw an X-ray, courtesy of a chiropractor. My neck had a tilt of at least 17 degrees. (I finally twigged the connection with the accident.) Now arthritis has set in and the medical diagnosis is “joints worn out”. So I am on the side of your complete asshole. He could be justified for any minor massacre.

    1. You sweet talking bastard, Marty.

      The premise of your post, the humour in needless exactitude, remind me of something I once read in an analysis of a Victorian comedy . Sorry, can’t remember the details at all except that some dialogue was shown to be funny by its inclusion of unnecessary qualification.

  4. I can’t believe that Spinal Tap’s “11” hasn’t been mentioned (until now).
    I reckon context always makes things (including numbers) funnier than they might otherwise be. Something about the dissonance.
    As for the Beast With Three Strings, three is the minimalist and perfect number:
    You need more than 2, 4 seems too even, 5 has connotations of 10, more than 5 is too complicated.
    I can’t help thinking about the interesting number paradox and Hardys comment to R…… about how uninteresting a number 1729 was.

    1. Because the Spinal Tap bit, although hilarious, is not hilarious because of the choice of 11. That number is the only reasonable choice in the bit. (Although, as it happens, it is a pretty funny number.) “wires”, not “strings”, which also matters.

      1. Of course “strings”. My mistake, this is what happens when you try posting a comment from a phone. Did you guys watch the Beast as part of Deadly Earnest’s Aweful Movies? (Back in the good old days of Channel 0 and test patterns after midnight).

        1. No, it would have been 1981, when Channel 9 was playing very random movies all night. I do, just, remember (the Melbourne) Deadly Earnest, and Jeff used to watch him religiously in the late 60s.

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