What is a Joke? (an occasional series)

A couple of recent articles about the episode of Seinfeld where Elaine takes on the sacred monster that is the New Yorker cartoon got me thinking about what counts as a joke, and how jokes succeed or fail. Thus begins an occasional series within an already rather occasional blog, about the nature of The Joke.
(A caveat: we’re definitely heading for the kind of territory dismissed by EB White in his quotation which provides the title of this blog. Readers with little patience for such phrases as ‘The beauty of the joke is how the expectation is built up through the mapping of each of these terms onto its counterpart in the other sentence’ might want to stop at this point.)
I assume a joke must involve some incongruity or the confounding of an expectation, very often one which the joke itself establishes (Robert Mankoff’s comments about jokes involving contrasting frames of reference are relevant here). This isn’t much use as a definition of a joke (it also applies to whodunnits and surprise parties), but it does allow us to think about how jokes might work, and how one joke might work better than another.
As a starting point, consider a recent exchange I had with a friend (of mine). He asked me for an example of what I considered a good joke, and I offered him the following, which as far as I know comes from Groucho Marx:

‘Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana’.

My friend offered me the following (unattributed):

‘How did Darth Vader know what Luke Skywalker got for his birthday? He felt his presents’.

For what it’s worth, I’m not crazy about my friend’s joke (sorry Simon). I’m reluctant to say it’s not funny, or even that it’s not as funny as Groucho’s. If someone said they preferred the Darth Vader joke, I’m not sure I could say that they were wrong, any more than they would be wrong to prefer Jack Daniels to Talisker, or vanilla to mint choc. But I think there are objective criteria on which we can judge jokes, and I think that Groucho’s joke works better as a joke than the Darth Vader one.
Each of these jokes is a pun, and each involves a pun on two words (‘flies’ and ‘like’, and ‘felt’ and ‘presents’/‘presence’, respectively). One involves a reference to a pop cultural phenomenon (though the other does involve reference to a cliché). I don’t think this makes much of a difference, though – many finely-wrought jokes require familiarity with a specific framework or set of assumptions.[i] What does make a difference, I think, is that the Groucho joke establishes and subverts the expectations of the audience in a more efficient and subtle manner. To see how it does this, work backwards. The joke (the confounded expectation) is revealed in the juxtaposition of the two sentences, which have the following respective structures:

First sentence: noun-verb-preposition;

Second sentence: adjective-noun-verb.

The beauty of the joke is how the expectation is built up through the mapping of each of these terms onto its counterpart in the other sentence.[ii] ‘Fruit’ is actually used as an adjective in the second sentence, but it is often used as a noun, and its position after the first sentence creates the assumption that this is how it’s functioning here. Because of that assumption, ‘flies’, which is actually used as an adjective, is assumed to be functioning as a verb; and because of those two assumptions, ‘like’ in the second sentence is understood as setting up a comparison. It’s only when this assumed comparison goes awry that one rolls back these assumptions and uncovers the joke. This sounds extremely pedantic, and of course it is. But it’s a tribute to the joke in question that to appreciate how it works one must go into this kind of detail.
The Darth Vader joke works differently. There’s no expectation confounded, just the incongruity of Christmas in the Star Wars universe. This requires a more cumbersome setup than the Groucho joke; the two frames of reference are yoked together before the punchline, so we’re immediately confronted with the incongruity rather than being allowed to figure it out. This diminishes what is left to be revealed, and signposts what the joke is going to be like. We’re all familiar with jokes of this form, and know that the punchline will be a pun on something from Star Wars.[iii] Again, this isn’t to say the resulting joke will be bad, just that it won’t have the sophistication of Groucho’s. While we can hardly say that someone is wrong to think it funny, I think we can legitimately question their appreciation of how jokes work – their appreciation of wit – if they deny this.

[i] E.g.,Dorothy Parker’s timeless line ‘If all the girls at the Yale prom were laid end to end, I wouldn’t be surprised’, which is not timeless insofar as it relies on its audience being familiar with the ‘If all the such-and-such were laid to end to end…’ convention.
[ii] I did warn you.
[iii] E.g., ‘What do Titanic and The Sixth Sense have in common?’ ‘Icy dead people’ (for my money, that’s a better joke than the Darth Vader one). See also innumerable sketches featuring Jesus shopping for a cross in Ikea, etc.

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