Thursday, January 28, 2010

On jokes

When I was in grad school I had the interesting problem of being a socially inept extrovert. Being an extrovert is OK. Being socially inept is survivable. But a socially inept extrovert is going to wind up being embarrassed. Repeatedly.

So I decided to do something about it. I decided that I'd learn to tell jokes. So I began following rec.humor.funny and would regularly inflict what I thought the funniest jokes were on people around me.

At first my delivery sucked and they wouldn't laugh, or would only laugh politely. Over time my delivery improved and people began laughing for real. Eventually I gained enough social skills to realize that telling bad jokes wasn't the best way towards a normal social life improve my social skills, but kept on doing it anyways because it was fun.

So why are jokes funny? Why do we laugh? When I reflect on it, I don't really know the answer. What I do know is that the structure of a joke inevitably sets up some tension, then relieves it in an unexpected way, and then people laugh. If you can't set up the tension, and then release it, people won't laugh. And once people have started laughing, it is easier to keep them laughing.

To see this in a simple example, consider the lowly pun:
Q: What is the difference between bird flu and swine flu?
A: One requires tweetment while the other requires oinkment!

As soon as you hear the question, you know what is coming. And you try to figure it out. Then you hear the answer, see how it connects, and (hopefully) laugh.

Many jokes rely on cultural references, often topical:
Q: What is the difference between Santa Claus and Tiger Woods?
A: Santa stopped at three hos.

Q: Why did the possum cross the road?
A: There was a car coming.

Q: Why are New Yorker's so cynical?
A: The light at the end of the tunnel is New Jersey!

Q: What is the difference between NY and LA?
A: In NY people say, "Fuck you!" and just mean, "Have a nice day!" In LA people say, "Have a nice day!" and mean "Fuck you!"

If I tell those jokes to the right people I am guaranteed a good laugh. If I tell them to the wrong person I'll get a blank look. Unless you're up on current scandals, have lived somewhere where opossums are common road kill, know that area of NJ or are familiar with stereotypes about NY and LA, those jokes won't cause a laugh.

Those jokes actually work with reasonably broad audiences. Some jokes only work with niche audiences. For example this only works with anglophones who know a little French. (I have great luck with Canadians on this one.)
Q: How do Australians say, "You're welcome" in French?
A: (in your best Australian accent) "Pas de probleme, mate!"

What is interesting about this is that I find it is the act of having to translate it that makes it funny. Living in Southern California I've tried to switch to Spanish, but it simply doesn't work. People hear "No problemo, mate!" as English instead of Spanish, so don't find it funny. But the French version forces the mental translation. For different reasons francophones who speak some English don't find it funny for the simple reason that they don't understand the cultural reference about Australians.

Now many people have told me that they can't remember jokes. Let me give a longish joke to illustrate the problems people encounter.
A little girl decided that she wanted to sell toothbrushes. So she went to a manager at a manufacturer and convinced him that, even though she was young, there was no harm in giving her a try. So he gave her her chance.

The first day she showed up, took her sample, went out, and came back. He asked, "How did you do today?" She said, "I thold ONE toothbwuth!" He said, "I'm sorry, but you're going to have to do better than that if this is going to work out."

The second day she showed up, took her sample, went out, and came back. He asked, "How did you do today?" She said, "I thold TWO toothbwutheth!" He said, "I'm sorry, but you're going to have to do a lot better than that if this is going to work out."

The third day she showed up, took her sample, went out, and came back. He asked, "How did you do today?" She said, "I thold THREE THOUTHAND toothbwutheth!" He said, "Three thousand? Wow! How did you do that?" She said, "Well, I went to the mall and offered people chipth and dip. They thaid, 'Thith tathtth like cwap!' I thaid, 'Thith ith cwap, want a toothbwuth?'"

(Incidentally that is one of my wife's favorites.)

Now the first problem people have in remembering a joke like this is that by the time they've heard the end of it, they've forgotten most of it. Memory is an odd thing. We don't realize it, but anything you remember 30 seconds is actually in long term memory. However we've got many levels of long term memory. So just because you've remembered something for 30 seconds doesn't mean that you'll remember it 5 minutes later. If you're going to remember something, you have to work for it. What you're going to need to do is remind yourself on a schedule until it really sticks. My minimal effective schedule is about 30 seconds later, 5 minutes later, again that day, then again the next day, then again sometime in the next week.

And that leads into the second problem. When people hear a joke like this, the most memorable thing is what sticks in your mind. So people remember, "Thith ith cwap, want a toothbwuth?" and then have no referent from which to remember how to start the joke. Or if they start the joke, they keep on jumping directly to the punch line. But it doesn't work without the build-up.

What you've therefore got to do is learn that, "Joke ___ starts with ___". And then you need to practice telling it. And every time you go off track, you've got to back up just slightly, and start telling it, correctly, from before you make the error. This is a subtle and important point that people miss. If you practice telling it, mess up, then start right at the error then you're practicing making the error. And you'll never stop making the error. You've got to practice leading up to the potential error without making the error to get it right. (This is something I learned in choir, but it works for jokes as well as it does for songs.)

And then the third problem is that no matter how many jokes you tell, and how well you tell them, you will forget jokes. I've told hundreds of different jokes. At no point do I remember most of them. Or even most of the good ones. But as long as you have some good ones, that doesn't matter.

Enough on telling jokes, what makes them funny?

As I said, I've noticed that the sudden release of tension is an element. The corollary of this is that it is easier for a joke to be funny when it's about something we have tension about. For instance if you want to make a pre-school child laugh, talk about poop.

Of course grown-ups don't have so much tension around potty training, but we do around sex. Which is why most of us remember and like dirty jokes. Like these.
Micky Mouse and his lawyer were talking. "I'm sorry Mr. Mouse, but the fact that your wife is crazy is not grounds for divorce." "I didn't say she was crazy, I said she was fucking Goofy!"

Q: What is the difference between good, very good, and showing off?
A: Spitting, swallowing, and gargling.

A little girl asked her dad for a GI Joe doll. He said, "Why do you want a GI Joe doll?" "For Barbie to play with." "I thought Barbie came with Ken?" "No, Barbie comes with GI Joe. She fakes it with Ken."

And to finish, here is the dirtiest joke that I am willing to repeat in public:
A businessman was going on a trip. So he decided to get his wife a special present to keep her happy while he was gone. Knowing her tastes, he decided to go to a sex shop.

Looking around the shop, nothing caught his eye. Sure they had a good selection of dildos, vibrators, and what not, but his wife was pretty experienced and nothing was really special. So he asked the woman who ran it.

She said, "Well I do have the voodoo penis, but I'm not sure I really want to sell it." "The what?" "Voodoo penis." Even though it was not really for sale, his curiosity was up and he convinced her to bring it out.

She went in back and came out with a weird wooden box. She opened it up and there was a wooden dildo with all sorts of strange occult symbols on it. He said, "Well that looks weird, but it's basically just a dildo." She said, "That's because you haven't seen what it can do."

Then she said, "Voodoo penis, the door!" And the voodoo penis flew out of the box, flew up to the door and began banging on it. Then she said, "Voodoo penis, the table!" It went over and began banging on the table. Then she said, "Voodoo penis, the box!" and it went back into the box.

When he saw this, he knew his wife had to have it. A thousand bucks later she was convinced to sell it, and he took it home. And he gave it to his wife with the instructions, "If you get bored while I'm gone, just lie back, get comfy, open the box and say, 'Voodoo penis, my crotch!' and you'll have an interesting experience."

She thought it was odd, but she accepted the present. And while he was away on his trip she decided that she would give it a try. Despite how silly she felt about it she took her clothing off, laid back, opened the box, and said, "Voodoo penis, my crotch!"

Of course the voodoo penis flew out and began fucking her! It was amazing! Soon she had a wonderful orgasm. But it wasn't all brute strength, because before long it had brought her back to a peak and she had a second! After her third, she decided that this was a good thing but she'd had enough for now. Besides, she was getting sore.

So she said, "Voodoo penis, stop!" It didn't. She tried grabbing it and pulling it out. She wasn't strong enough. Desperate she decided to throw on a dress and go to the hospital. Unfortunately, halfway to the hospital, she went off the road during yet another orgasm and hit a tree.

As she was lying there in her car the policeman came up and asked why she hit the tree. She said, "Because (pant) I'm being (ooh) fucked by (pant) a voodoo penis!" "You're what?" "Being (oooh) fucked (gasp) by a voodoo penis! (pant)" "Yeah, right. Voodoo penis, my ass!"


Blogger King said...

LMAO on the Voodoo. I got to learn how to tell that one.

Ben Tilly said...

That gets such a good response that it is one of my favorite ones to tell if I have the time and know that nobody around will be offended at the language. However both caveats are important.

Vishal Sagar said...

awesome voodoo shit! :)

G said...

¿How do you write such a good article and get only 3 comments?

Ben Tilly said...

I don't have a lot of regular readers. In part because I don't write that often and don't promote myself too much.

But occasionally I'll write something that I think will appeal to that audience I'll submit a link to Hacker News. Sometimes people who follow those links will read other things I've written.

Which is why this particular blog entry had no comments until after I talked about my impressions of Google.