Friday, 20 February 2009

Burritos and Butterflies

Can numbers be funny? I've been thinking about this after reading this amazing interview with Daniel Tammet in the Observer recently. Tammet is a 'savant' - a condition not unlike autism (the links between the two conditions are disputed, though, and savantism is singularly under-researched) - who has a characteristic that all savants share, which is (as defined by the spectacularly-named researcher Darold Treffert) a memory that is "exceedingly deep but very, very narrow". 

Tammet has a powerful emotional response to certain numbers; he describes six as "the hardest number for me, the smallest...cold, dark, almost like a black hole". Reading this, I was reminded of the passage in Nabakov's autobiography 'Speak, Memory' in which he analyses the synaesthesic qualities of the letters of the alphabet that he felt as a child:

The long a of the English alphabet...has for me the tint of weathered wood, but a French a evokes polished ebony. This black group also includes hard g (vulcanized rubber) and r (a sooty rag being ripped)...I see q as browner than k, while s is not the light blue of c, but a curious mixture of azure and mother-of-pearl.  

Finding numbers funny, while lacking the emotional import and imaginative sympathies of these exquisite leaps of association, is similarly intrinsic and impossible to really explain. How to articulate why 15 and 4 are very funny, 11 is hilarious, 7 is absolutely without any humour in the least, 12 and 16 are positively gloom-inducing, and 17 and 9 are gut-achingly uproarious? And how to explain why this sign, spotted in New York City, has the most inspired use of comical numeracy ("Pop.208") I've ever seen?

Many thanks and warm wishes to Tom Stephens, for originally spotting this


  1. I was thinking about this THIS MORNING in the shower (of all places) -- I was remembering a Demetri Martin joke that goes like this: "I tripped on my way up an escalator...I fell down the stairs for an hour and a half." I wondered how he determined that an hour an a half was the funniest length of time to fall down the stairs.

    Also, check out the DVD commentary for I'm Alan Partridge, in which Coogan, Ianucci, and Baynham go into this kind of detail on all kinds of things, not just numbers -- e.g. why are certain names of towns funny in punchlines, while others are not, and how have these changed over time? (I think 'Pontefract' is given as an example of a town that would have been funny in the 1950s or 1960s, on, say, an episode of the Goon Show, but would now sound almost anachronistic.)

  2. Ah yes - Burritoville. It's still here, and doing a roaring trade. I wish I could have been a fly-on-the-wall for the late-night branding brainstorm.

    ("Nice work, Gary. The road sign logo looks great. But, don't city-limits signs normally have a populations displayed?" "Good point, NIgel. Okay, so shall we say... 25,000?" "No, no, no... waaaay to high. It's gotta be something small, like 150. [pause] Too low? 200? 201? 202?"

  3. why don't the two of you garys come on out to san francisco and eat a real burrito for half the price!