In his classic book A Theory of Justice, philosopher John Rawls argues for liberalism as a political ideology with a thought experiment. The subject is in the “original position” where “…no one knows his place in society, his class position or social status; nor does he know his fortune in the distribution of natural assets and abilities, his intelligence and strength, and the like.” In other words, you could be anyone in this hypothetical society. Now: what political ideology would be the best?
I would argue that when using this “veil of ignorance” to render obsolete all particulars about the joke or certain context — for example, sometimes it’s funnier to use a really high number, like “it’s like 95,000,000 degrees out here” or a low number like “literally only 2 people have ever eaten Taco Bell without shitting their pants in the parking lot” — 37 is the funniest number.
This is borne out in tons of comedy movies. Maybe the best example of this is in Clerks, where there’s a running joke about how Dante’s girlfriend has blown 37 guys, which is supposed to be a lot and makes him feel bad. There’s also a peasant character in Monty Python and the Holy Grail who only exists to make a joke about how he died when he was 37 years old. In Men In Black, there’s a joke about how a week in this other galaxy is 37 hours long. Bill Murray’s character in Stripes is a weakling because his chest is only 37 inches across. There have been 37 members in the band Spinal Tap. The movie My Cousin Vinny starts with the line “This one is 37 cents.”
There are many other examples, but this is a hard thing to research. There are also a bunch of uses in serious movies like Cool Hand Luke, Phenomenon, Pulp Fiction, and Casablanca. The band Punchline, which is not a comedy band even though they have a joke-related name, made an album all about the number 37. And there are websites just listing tons of examples in all kinds of movies, TV shows, songs, books, etc. In my experience, 37 is also a go-to “funny” number in real life, where you’ll hear people say stuff like “I have like 37 bed bug bites” or “I heard Sting can have sex for like 37 hours” or “there are like 37 people in this elevator.”
Well for one, it’s partly because odd numbers are funnier than even numbers. Even numbers aren’t that funny because it kind of seems like they have their shit together more, like even it they get split in half there are still two numbers in there that can keep each other company. As if they’re somehow more confident and happy because there are two of them, like two stray dogs who found one another, or the Winklevoss twins. It’s not funny when someone has their shit together. Odd numbers are like less stable, more off-kilter and wacky. They’re like a guy with his tie all loose sweating and trying to carry too many papers and the papers are going everywhere. Now that’s funny.
37 is also a prime number. Prime numbers are like the odd number’s odd number; they’re so weird you can’t even divide them by anything. Prime numbers are like those Andy Kaufman types of comedians where it’s like, man this guy’s just so weird. I don’t know why I’m laughing…but I sure am laughing!
And not only is 37 a prime number, it’s a high enough number that it’s a little surprising that it’s prime. It’s like, sure, 7, you’re a prime number — I could be prime too if I was as small as you. Same with you, 13. Get back to me when you’ve lived a little.
Now I will say that 27 is also a pretty funny number. I’ve heard 27 used as a go-to in lots of funny situations as well. But not as much as 37. No, not by a long shot. And why is that? Well because it’s just 3 9s put together. That’s about as funny as…uuhhh…something that’s not very funny.
37, however, is big enough that it would seem like you’d a least be able to divide it by something. But nope, it really defies division. You can’t explain it. It’s an odd bird, this 37.
The other important aspect of 37 is that it’s not too odd. It’s cool and funny if you’re a little eccentric, but you don’t want to be, like, screaming about radio frequencies and drinking jars of your own piss. That guy’s never gonna get a sitcom. There are a lot of prime numbers larger than 37, but they’re not as funny as 37 because it’s a little unsettling that they’re prime. Like 41, 43, and 47: get your shit together, guys. This little “being divisible only by one and yourself” act isn’t cute anymore.
Actually 41, 43, and 47 are bad examples because they start with a 4, which isn’t as funny a number to start with as 3, so they have one strike against them already. Once you get up into the 50s or 60s and see a prime number, it’s like, “61? Uhh can you seriously not be divided into any other numbers? Why? Ohh, you murdered a bunch of hitchhikers in the 80s, that explains it.”
And then once you get up into the hundreds, you get into “high number” territory. If you need number that’s funny specifically because it’s so big, these can be funny — even way funnier than 37 — but that’s contingent on the context. Like if you need a number for how many people are in line for the bathroom at a bar, 145 is probably a funny choice. “Fuck, there are like 145 people in line for this bathroom.” Same with really small numbers, like “there’s literally like a .000000000003 percent chance I’m not going to run into Scott tonight.” All depending on context.
Yes, 37 is the funniest number, definitively and objectively.
Which means that what 37 really is is the “funniest” number. Which means it’s not the funniest number. The search continues.
Eddie Brawley is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn