Meta jokes

First, a brief digression to a recent family experience. My wife and 4-year old daughter were looking through a children’s magazine. They came to a page of jokes. My wife read a few of them. Sample joke: “Q: What did the lamb do for her birthday party? A: She had a sheep-over.” My wife and I chuckled a little bit, in part to to encourage my daughter. However, she simply didn’t understand the joke. So we tried to explain it, saying that “sheep” and “sleep” sound similar, and so forth; of course the joke isn’t very funny to start with, and naturally any explanation made it completely unfunny. However, my daughter seized on what appeared to be the salient point, which was that a joke is asking a question and responding with a meaningless answer. She then told several jokes of her own, for example: “Q: What can you cut with a knife? A: A table!” This was followed by much laughter. We laughed along. At the same time I was picturing the reaction of one of her pre-schoolmates to this riddle: a start of incomprehension, followed by a change of subject.

OK, digression over. What makes this sort of joke funny (if it is funny) is the confusion between two concepts which are not normally related but which become related in the telling of the joke. I think this confusion underlies most jokes that ordinary people tell (comedians tell this sort of joke too, but they also tell more personal stories which are more interesting and usually funnier.) My daughter’s joke wasn’t funny at all because there was no conceptual confusion. The sheep joke was a little bit funny, but it wasn’t very funny because it was simply a bad pun. Good puns expose unexpected congruence; bad puns just rely on words that happen to sound alike.

The jokes which I tend to think are funniest, and the ones which I actually remember, are actually meta-jokes: they are jokes in which the humor results from presenting something in the form of a joke which is not actually funny. The humor lies in the confusion between the concepts of humor and non-humor.

The classic meta-joke is the well known “Q: Why did the chicken cross the road? A: To get to the other side.” This joke has lost its humor through repetition, but it expresses the idea of the meta-joke perfectly: it is funny because it is not funny.

Other meta-jokes that I like:

There was a young man from St. Bees,
Who was stung on the arm by a wasp.
When asked, “Does it hurt?”
He replied, “No, it doesn’t.
I’m so glad it wasn’t a hornet.”
(I first saw this in a Metamagical Themas by Doug Hofstadter.)

Q: Why is a raven like a writing desk?
A: I don’t know.
(From Alice in Wonderland.)

Let me tell you a knock-knock joke; you start:
“Knock knock”
“Who’s there?”
(I’m not sure where I saw this first, although it was recently in the film Mirrormask. I’ve observed that this joke generally doesn’t work with children. They just quickly make something up, or recycle another knock knock joke they’ve heard before.)

As you can probably tell, I’m not a very funny person. When I told jokes in the schoolyard, and they fell flat, I was usually baffled, and tried to explain them. This was naturally (in retrospect) ineffective, and generally lead to eye-rolling and subject-changing. But, again in retrospect, it’s easy to see where good comedians come from: they are the people who, when a joke falls flat, follow up quickly with another one. They learn from their mistakes and steadily improve. Eventually, if they are clever enough, they become genuinely original and funny.

I think the funniest joke I ever told was itself a meta-joke. In high school a group of us, some twenty people or so, were at a restaurant. Somebody decided to try the old game of Telephone, in which the first person whispers something to the second person, he or she whispers it to the third, and so on, and you compare the final result to the original saying. When it got to me, I listened to the person on my right, and then said something completely different to the person on my left. The final result was thus bizarrely different from the original saying. Of course they figured out that it was me pretty quickly, but it was still pretty funny. At least to me.

(I don’t remember what I heard, but I think that what I said was an old limerick I saw in a Martin Gardner column:

There was a young lady named Bright,
who travelled much faster than light.
She left home one day,
in her relative way,
and returned home the previous night.)

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