What is the earliest joke you can remember from childhood? Maybe it was something on TV, possibly involving a small, seemingly powerless figure who turns the tables on somebody big. It might have been Tweety dodging Sylvester. Certainly Bugs Bunny had no trouble dealing with mini-adults like Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam. Faced with a gun at point-blank range, Bugs would plug the barrel with his gloved finger and . . .
Ka-blooey! Scorched face. Ka-blooey! Moustaches with smoke twirling off the ends.
Inspired by Bugs Bunny, below is a graphical model of how a joke works. Humiliation is the energy source in about a third of all jokes. References to sex are the combustible fuel for another third. The remaining third of jokes get their pop from disrupted language processing, which we’ll get to later.
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According to some, “ha!” is an expression of relief like “whew,” meaning “I’m glad that happened to you and not me.” As you see in the chart below, a lot of comedy is associated with characters who bring misfortune on themselves.
The Inept Aggressors are fools. They deserve ridicule — ha! Our feelings are less clear when we laugh at Habitual Victims and Innocent Bystanders. In the world of “insult added to injury” humor, as in the real world, the innocent take their whacks with the guilty. Too bad for you, chumps!
To see the “Prawn Salad Ltd” sketch, google: youtube monty python prawn salad
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Thanks to advanced scanning technology, scientists are beginning to understand the role of the ass brain in joke processing and guffaw emissions.
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I once organized a practical joke at work. It was just before a weekly department meeting, and there were about a dozen people around a big conference table, waiting for the boss to arrive. “Everybody, raise your chair to maximum height,” I said. The boss arrived soon after, started the meeting, and eventually he said the secret word (the name of a major client). Around the table, we all pulled the levers on our chairs and sank six inches in unison — a hilarious sight. Surprisingly, the boss — though he was famous for his sense of humor — didn’t laugh. For everyone in the room except him, part of the joke was seeing the look on his face. The thing about a practical joke is: there is always someone not “in on it.”
- To illustrate the boss’s famous sense of humor: he once said if he was out and you left a memo on his empty chair, he would assimilate the information by assmosis.
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In seventh grade, Mrs W told a version of the “pi r square” joke, which uses “country” grammar and food ways to slam the rural poor — a popular target in all parts of the world and in every era of history. The funny thing is: Mrs W was a self-declared hick, having a Texas accent and being from a family that had seen hardship (which was why, she said, she wore a black skirt and plain white blouse to work every day).
But folks are paradoxical, and country people love telling jokes with a twang. It goes to show how stereotyping feels different when the target group is in on the joke.
Instead of a pickup, Mrs W drove a beat-up ol’ white Triumph TR-3.
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Humiliation and sex account for about two-thirds of the joke universe. The remaining third belongs mostly to language-processing humor. Puns are an example. You think you know what a word means, and then it means something different (“What has four wheels and flies?”). Another type of “wrong meaning” joke follows the pattern of “Waiter, what is this fly doing in my soup?”
A third type uses the juxtaposition of poetic language with street talk. The high-low language combo usually gets referred to the appreciative chuckle center (see Jocularological Map of the Brain), but in this example from Silkwood (1983) you see how mismatched diction can bring on an epiphany. In one shattering instant of illumination, we see what life has been like for TDF. Fair warning: if you are offended by the foul language you hear on cable TV, you should watch this video anyway. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSoNSVKTvGw
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One day in fifth grade, I noticed Mrs M kept pointing to the chalkboard with her middle finger. Clueless grownup! Little did she realize she was using a bad word in front of the class. I clamped my lips as hard as I could, but there was nothing I could do about the grand mal giggles in my chest. Terry B noticed and started making funny faces whenever Mrs M turned to the board. I couldn’t take a breath. My insides were jolting like an off-balance washing machine. I don’t know how I made it to recess. But the last thing in the world I wanted to hear was Mrs M calling on me to ask: “Karl, would you like to share with the class what is so funny?”