Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Some notes on humour

Some friends and I have often discussed a basic question, which lots of people have considered: What makes something “funny”? Incongruity of some sort seems typical. A well-dressed man who slips and falls can be funny, but a homeless man falling isn’t something we (usually) laugh about. Some have said that surprise is key, and surely that’s sometimes true... but not always. I can recite some of the routines in Monty Python and the Holy Grail from memory, yet I still laugh at them, and I’ll always find the Latin-lesson scene in Life of Brian to be hilarious no matter how many times I see it.

But maybe that’s just because I’m a mega-geek.

I’ve also wondered why jokes always come in threes. “There was a priest, a minister, and a rabbi....” “There was a Englishman, and Scotsman, and an Irishman....” “Three teenagers were walking to school....”

Of course, playing with words and phrasing always makes for a good chuckle.

A young woman was dating an undertaker, and was afraid that her parents wouldn’t think he was worthy of her; they always said she should marry a doctor, you see. But she had an idea about how to approach it, and when she told her parents about him and they asked the expected question, “What does he do for a living?”, she replied, “He follows the medical profession.”

Humour’s very cultural, of course, and, when word-play is important, language-dependent. Which is why it’s always surprised me how well Asterix has fared in translation. They’ve gotten good translators, who put a priority on keeping the wit, sometimes at the expense of the literal accuracy that we’d normally want in a translation. There are often oddities in movies because of that sort of thing. In Le dîner des cons (“The dinner of idiots”, but the English title was done as “The Dinner Game”), there’s a character whose last name is “Sasseur”, which, when pronounced in French, sounds similar to “sa soeur”, “his sister”. So there’s a running joke about misunderstanding the name. The English subtitles call the character “Hissister”, which (1) doesn’t sound right, as we’re used to having the names remain the same in the subtitles, and (2) isn’t a sensible surname anyway, so it seems too contrived to be funny. The joke gets lost.

Continuing on the wordplay angle is the “What’s the difference between [x] and [y]?” joke. The answer is given as a description of [x]. One makes one’s own spoonerism to derive the description of [y], and to get the joke. An example:

Q: What’s the difference between a seagull and a baby?

A: A seagull flits all over the shore.

Sorry, I don’t know any “polite” ones.

And there’s the “guy in a diner” series of jokes. Some of my favourites from that:

Guy goes into a diner, waitress comes over, guy says “I’d like a cup of coffee, without cream.” Waitress says, “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ll have to have it without milk. We don’t have any cream.”
Guy goes into a diner, waitress comes over, guy says, “Give me a quickie.” Waitress slaps the man and storms off. Guy at the next table says, “Hey Mac... it’s pronounced ‘keesh’.”
Guy goes into a diner, waitress comes over, guy says, “I’ll have rubbery eggs, limp greasy bacon, burnt toast, and crappy coffee.” Waitress says, “Sir! I’m not going to serve you that!” Guy says, “Why not? You did yesterday.”

Actually, my friends and I thought we figured out the reason that jokes come in threes. Our theory: the first one sets up the situation, the second establishes a pattern, and the third breaks the pattern and makes the joke. If we did four, the third would seem tedious, because it doesn’t seem to add anything. The ideal count might also be a cultural thing.

An Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman are at the olympics, outside the stadium, unable to get tickets — it’s sold out. They’re bemoaning their fate as they watch the athletes going in through their entrance. Suddenly, the Englishman gets an idea. He looks around, finds a long stick, strips down to his boxers, and goes to the athletes’ entrance. “Johnson, javelin,” he says, and they let him in.

“Cor!”, exclaims the Scotsman, as he casts about for something. He finds a round, flat rock, strips to his boxers, and heads for the entrance. “McFee, discus,” he says, and they let him in as well.

Wide-eyed and inspired, the Irishman, too, looks around for something. He finds a tangle of barbed wire, strips to his boxers, and approaches the door. “O’Hara,” he says, “Fencin’.”


Thomas J. Brown said...

A friend of mine has a lot to say about what makes things funny. He points out that density is very important.

If it takes you 5 minutes to get to the punchline of your joke, it doesn't really matter how funny it is, you'll have already lost your audience. If you can get to the punchline in under 30 seconds, the joke is a winner. The only way your joke can be 5 minutes long is if there are multiple points throughout that elicit laughter.

Unfortunately, a lot of people don't know what funny is.

Dr. Momentum said...

Incongruity is a different type of surprise.