The "humourless robot" is a fairly standard trope in modern-day science fiction. Many writers take the view that the sense of humour is a uniquely human property, and so make a point of writing robots, computers, and androids as utterly failing (often despite trying very hard) to understand jokes and sarcasm. Notable examples include Data from Star Trek and the titular cyborgs in the Terminator series of films. Many key scenes in these franchises, and even an entire TV episode, are dedicated to showing how humour is impenetrable to advanced artificial intelligence.

I'm interested in identifying the earliest published sci-fi story where the artificial recognition or production of humour is a major plot point. Note that this doesn't necessarily have to be an instance of the "humourless robot" trope—I would also accept a story hinging upon a computer or robot with a superhuman ability produce or understand jokes, in much the same way that Stanisław Lem's Elektrybałt has a superhuman ability to write poetry. But I do want to stress that I'm interested only in cases where the AI's skill (or lack thereof) at processing humour forms a crucial part of the story. Simply describing a world in which robots can or cannot understand humour is not enough; the way the characters develop or the way the narrative unfolds should depend in some crucial way on the (in)ability of an AI character to handle humour.

  • 3
    In Eando Binder's "I, Robot" (1939), Adam Link says: "An amusing thing happened one day, not long ago. Yes, I can be amused too. I cannot laugh, but my brain can appreciate the ridiculous." But the robot's sense of humour is not important enough to the story to meet your requirements. – user14111 Sep 2 '20 at 2:02
  • 1
    Minor side-note: Data's lack of humor was designed but removed on purpose by his creator. The Terminator in T2 clearly uses humor and even claims to understand crying at the end. – Yorik Sep 2 '20 at 18:59
  • I could have sworn that the Tin Woodman in Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was published in 1900, would be an example of a humorous robot. But in the book version, he starts out as a cyborg, with every part eventually replaced by metal, and although he loves and weeps, he cracks not a single deliberate joke. Since the Tin Woodman was a character in most of Baum's Oz series, maybe someone who is familiar with them will remember him cracking a joke. – Invisible Trihedron Sep 3 '20 at 12:48
  • Marvin the paranoid android transcended normal humor bypassing slapstick and puns all together and jumped straight to deadpan sarcastic humor. – John Meacham Sep 6 '20 at 3:13

Good likelihood there's an earlier one, but The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (1966) by Robert A. Heinlein had a major character in the form of Mike -- aka MYCROFT, the central computer of Luna City, which (internally) due to being vastly overbuilt for the city's needs, and possibly nudged a little by Manny Stone, "woke up" and started carrying on conversations with Manny, and in fact faking failures so Manny (who had the maintenance contract) would be called in to talk to him.

Significant characterization of Mike hinges on his learning to have a sense of humor, to the point of being able to create his own puns, practical jokes, and even, near the end, to understand more ordinary jokes. Central to the plot of the novel, Mike becomes pivotal in the Lunar Revolution -- supplying secure communication, ballistic calculation (when it comes time to actually need it), and an insider in the Warden's organization -- and at one point, Manny tells another character he thinks Mike might be helping them only because he thinks it's funny, another of his (very pointed) practical jokes.

  • An interesting point is that when Manny brings in his female accomplice to talk to Mike, they discover that Mike has a female sense of humor. – jamesqf Sep 1 '20 at 15:55
  • 2
    @jamesqf Well, at least that's Wyoming's opinion. I don't recall Manny offering an opinion on that point. – Zeiss Ikon Sep 1 '20 at 15:58

I nominate Isaac Asimov's short story 'Escape!' (originally published as 'Paradoxical Escape' in 1945; readable here at the Internet Archive). In this story, U.S. Robots is commissioned by a competitor to design a hyperspatial drive. It is posited that something about the problem involves harm to humans, and this ruined the competitor's (non-positronic) supercomputer. It is speculated that the competitor is secretly trying to ruin U.S. Robots' own positronic supercomputer as well, to maintain competitive parity.

Since the positronic supercomputer also has a personality (which the competitor's machine lacked), Susan Calvin is able to talk it through the problem and cushion it against the possibility of human harm. It turns out that, while in hyperspace, humans do not really exist as such, which is the problem. Having been pre-coached, the machine doesn't break down, but its personality becomes gently unhinged - it turns into a practical joker!

The machine builds a spaceship with the resulting hyperdrive, and Powell and Donovan end up taking an involuntary test flight. While in hyperspace they are subjected to macabre visions; there are no controls in the ship; they find they can hear communications from Earth but are unable to reply; there are no beds and no showers; and all they have to eat and drink are beans and milk.

Calvin's explanation mentions the Brain's sense of humor explicitly:

She went on, "So he accepted the item, but not without a certain jar. Even with death temporary and its importance depressed, it was enough to unbalance him very gently."

She brought it out calmly, "He developed a sense of humor -- it's an escape, you know, a method of partial escape from reality. He became a practical joker."

  • Is this really humour, perhaps editing in some quotes would help because at the moment this could be interpreted as humour or mental torture, all depends on the motivation and delivery but it's not clear as written. – TheLethalCarrot Sep 1 '20 at 13:09
  • That was my best shot as well, and I don't think there were that many AIs before Asimov (obvious nods to R.U.R. and Metropolis). Noting @TheLethalCarrot's comment, the story certainly presented it as the computer developing a sense of humour... in fact I think it's stated as such explicitly in which case I think it's appropriate to honour the author's intention. – Mark Morgan Lloyd Sep 1 '20 at 15:12
  • 2
    @TheLethalCarrot: to the practical joker, all their stunts are funny; the victims are not always in agreement. – Arluin Sep 1 '20 at 18:59
  • 3
    Not to be confused with Rupert Holmes' 1972 song "Escape", which was about yuppie robots discovering humor through the newspaper Personals columns. – T.E.D. Sep 1 '20 at 21:22
  • 1
    One humorous part of the prank is that the beans are in many differently sized/shaped cans suggesting e.g. salmon but they all contain beans. She says that the AI "definitely laughed," at one point (though she thinks it hysteria) – Yorik Sep 2 '20 at 19:14

The story "Mr. Jester" (1966) by Fred Saberhagen, was one of the author's early Berserker stories, about planet-sterilizing warcraft ordered to eliminate all life (the titular "berserkers") that are loose in the galaxy. Naturally, the berserkers have no sense of humor. However, after the first-generation berserkers are decisively defeated in one of the earlier stories ("Stone Place"), there are some problems with the construction of the second-generation war machines, in which the protagonist, Mr. Jester, becomes entangled.

For his unpopular political parodies, the protagonist is exiled to a station at the very edge of populated solar system, where he encounters one of the second-generation berserkers. However, while the nascent berserker knows that it is supposed to destroy something called "life," it has no actual record of what "life" actually is. So the Jester convinces that it "life" is the absence of humor, and he puts the (incredibly powerful) berserker and its army of support robots to work being as funny as they can manage.

The entire story is available online.


Asimov's Jokester, in which Multivac is given the task of analysing where jokes come from. First published 1956.

  • 3
    Is analyzing the origin of humor what the question is asking for? Does it require actually understanding humor, "getting the joke"? – Zeiss Ikon Aug 31 '20 at 15:56
  • 1
    Yes, and humor, and being able to 'get a joke' is a major plot point. But AI is not. – Basya Sep 1 '20 at 8:29
  • 2
    Multivac was AI-ish enough for me. I don't think sci fi writers of this era could have reasonably drawn a line between non-AI and AI computing. As they fantasized about future computers, it was largely all AI. You might compare multivac to other Asimov inventions, like R. Daneel Olivaw, but I think he just thought of robots as having more advanced computers. – kojiro Sep 1 '20 at 10:45
  • Not exactly an answer to the question though. – Mad Physicist Sep 1 '20 at 13:56
  • 1
    And yet this seems like a good answer to the question to me. OP asked for the earliest where the artificial recognition (or lack) of humor is a major plot point, and here we have it. – kojiro Sep 2 '20 at 12:05

An early one I recall was "The Proud Robot," by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore, writing jointly as Lewis Padgett. It was first published in 1943, so it beats the Asimov mentioned above. I recall the robot laughing at the protagonist's pratfall before it happened (robot had special senses ...). This story can be found in the famous anthology "Adventures in Time and Space ." A favorite from my earliest days exploring SF.

  • 1
    Yes: 'Wearily Gallegher dragged his lanky frame up from the couch. He might as well get out. Obviously there was no peace to be had in the laboratory. Not with that animated junk pile inflating his ego all over the place. Joe began to laugh in an off-key cackle. Gallegher winced. "What now?" "You’ll find out."' – Invisible Trihedron Sep 2 '20 at 2:52

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.