Does the Joke have a Secret Code?
Given the huge range and wealth of joke natural history, surely this idea that some special code exists is a myth? After all, why should the innermost workings of the joke be the same in every case? But on the other hand, we generally recognise a joke when we see one, and that does seem to suggest that there is something independent of the actual joke details at hand, if only we knew where to look…
Well, before we do suggest a model of the joke dynamics, let’s very briefly look at what has been said before, because it is interesting to see just how tricky this question is.
What Do the Experts on Humour Say?
There are two kinds of experts on humour. Firstly, the creative experts who make up the jokes, and do so because they want to make us laugh. Secondly, the analytic thinkers, who make up models of how the joke works, and do so because they want to understand humour. So what do these two groups of experts have to tell us all about the nature of the joke?
If we start with the analytic thinkers, who are usually philosophers, social scientists and intellectuals, what do we learn? Here is an example of a quote from a trio of social scientists:
‘Let S believe J is a joke in which identification class A is victorious over identification class B. Then the more positive S’s attitude towards A and the more negative S’s attitude towards B, the greater the magnitude of amusement S experiences with respect to J.
Well, it looks profound, although it’s hard to see what they are getting at just like that. So what does all this semantic algebra with the S, J, A and B come down to? Well, it can be reduced to a single sentence: ‘The more we look down on a group, the more we enjoy a joke that does too.’ Banal? Not entirely. Should we consider this to be an insight into humour? Hmm… Not really. Couldn’t they have said all this in plain English? Quite possibly.
Is this a fair sample from the social sciences literature? Probably not. At least, shall we say, that it wouldn’t be fair to pick this out if it wasn’t representative of the literature at large. But it is amazing just how much of this jargon and heavy thinking there is around in the academic texts. Not that one is expecting the literature to be light and humorous just because the subject itself is so colourful, but still…we can do without this kind of jargon and obscurity surely? Anyhow, I cite it rather as I would a joke – a piece of material that is a case example of what we want, if at all possible, to avoid. Jargon does have its place in science of course (and once it is rightfully established, it becomes a part of the language of science), and when we get into the greater detail that typifies the cartoon material, it will be hard to stay at the level of colloquial English. But at least we can keep as far away as possible from the overly complex language that we see above.
Suffice it to say that having trawled through much of the literature from the academics and intellectuals, I was sadly none the wiser about the nature of humour, and particularly about the dynamics of the joke. Perhaps this is not surprising though. After all, the academics are not looking for the same thing as we are here, which is to say, a model that works in practice. The point being that it is relatively easy to pontificate about jokes, till the cows come home as they say, as long as we don’t have to face that acid test, but when we are faced with creating new jokes from our model of the joke, then all the protective jargon in the world will no longer provide us with salvation.
Now normally at this point, there would follow an extensive section on the history of what has been said about humour in the past, right up to the present day. Such a description would reassure the reader that the writer has done the requisite homework, and is therefore an expert, whilst giving recognition to those other writers where it is due, and all of this according to academic tradition and practice. Then, in addition, such a survey would be used to demonstrate the superiority of the present set of ideas over the old ideas. But apart from a tiny foray into what has been said in the past, this survey is going to be replaced by an in depth study of an area of cartoon literature that leaves, at least to my mind, no time for such academic procedure. Nor is it clear that it is appropriate here, in an area of our existence where we are all intuitive experts, well able to assess what is going on in our own cerebral backyard, and perfectly able to judge whether we are learning something that we did not know before, or not.
But what about the humorists, because we have said nothng about them and their contribution? Surely they must have plenty to say about a subject that clearly fascinates them? To wit, there are a number of books written by professional cartoonists for those ‘just interested’, or alternatively, for those keen to answer the same calling.
A past cartoon editor of the British magazine ‘Punch’, by the name of Hewison, has written an excellent book about cartoon humour. Like all humorists, Hewison is fascinated by the question of where jokes come from. Here is one of the better insights from his book, ‘The Cartoon Connection’ (1977), and it comes in the form of a quote from the cartoonist, Osbert Lancaster.
‘It is not the cartoonists business to wave flags, and cheer loudly as the procession passes; his allotted role is that of the little boy who points out that the Emperor is stark naked.’
Very nice. One could even say that this applies to all of humour, and is something of a general rule. The problem being that it also applies to other human domains too, such as for example journalism. Indeed, when we look at it closely, there is no use pretending that this quotation really says anything at all about the vast majority of cartoons, because it simply does not. It is merely a nice image that takes us absolutely nowhere, whilst seeming to carry deep insight.
But how about the ‘rules of thumb’ that some humorists advocate in the books they write for aspirant cartoonists? Surely, these could be very useful because they are aimed directly at the nitty gritty problem of how to come up with a joke idea? In fact, we might expect that any book intended for the would-be cartoonist should devote at least one chapter to the question of ‘the perspiration that leads to inspiration’, because without the means to a good idea, any attempt to create a cartoon is stymied. However, looking at the overall pattern in this literature, we find that although great attention is paid to drawing skills, very little is directed at the creation of new ideas. And when we do get advice, it is often of the ‘pour a glass of wine and reflect’ variety, whilst another common tip is to peruse recent newspapers, especially those that carry other peoples cartoons. ‘Staring out of the window’ is another (Thurber). Whilst some writers recommend chasing well known catch phrases such as ‘Take me to your leader’ or perhaps to focus on already established themes such as ‘Desert Island’ or ‘Mother in law’ jokes.
But Hewison makes one thing clear in all of this, and it deserves the granite slab he recommends, so here it is, though the letters we have contrived here are nowhere near as large as he stipulates…
‘For any of us involved in the business of cartooning there is an eternal truth chipped out of granite slabs in letters ten feet high:
Quite where Hewison wanted to put this granite slab is not clear, but as he was the commissioning editor for Punch magazine, this is like a piece of advice from the oracle himself. Because it has to be said that the joke idea is king of all, and that the presentation is always secondary to the idea, however good it then turns out to be. All of which, in turn, means that the collective failure of humorists to offer any serious assistance in their writings for the aspirant creators of new humour is a serious matter. Not just a serious matter, but a serious failure on the part of the one group of experts we should expect to offer us some useful insight into the nature of the joke, and its creation.
Incidentally, like many writers, Hewison echoes the sentiment that to analyse the joke is to kill it. He writes that: ‘Dissecting the anatomy of a joke can stop its delicate heart-beat’, and ‘when you scrutinise a joke…it will invariably fall apart under your touch.’ However, as we shall see, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, an understanding of both the creative path that leads up to the joke, and the path of resolution that leads away from it, opens up a whole new world of insight into the way we think, hugely enhancing our appreciation of both the humour and the landscape of human meaning that the humour plays with, along the way.
So let us look again at this challenge that the joke presents to us. Because general questions about humour tend to hover above the actual material – at a safe distance as it were. But the real wealth of humour lies in the material itself, and this is where the challenge really lies, for nobody has managed to crack the code of the joke itself. So what is it about the joke that makes it so difficult to analyse? Well, the challenge of the joke is essentially twofold:
What do all jokes have in common? (The problem of Unity)
How do all the jokes differ from each other? (The problem of Diversity).
In order to explain these two issues in more detail, it is helpful to caricature the two ways of meeting this double challenge as ‘The Sausage Machine’, and ‘The Pigeon Hole’ approach. So firstly, the approach characterised by its similarity to the use of a sausage machine.
The ‘Sausage Machine’ Approach
The ‘Sausage Machine’ approach argues that there is a set of attack patterns common to all joke varieties, and that this forms a central pool of permutations from which all of humour draws its power. Only identify the attack patterns as in, for example, ‘reversal’ or ‘exaggeration’, and the shape of the machine mouth can be tooled up to fit that pattern in preparation of the incoming material. Then, by cramming the joke material into its gaping maw, the diversity of form that is the true wealth of humour can be reduced to a condition where all differences have been removed, and only unity remains.
In the cartoon drawn up by my friend Andrew Ball, we decided that the picturing of the jokes as semantic butterflies was a legitimate enough image, but that the additional temptation of then depicting actual images of cartoons on their wings had to be resisted for reasons of clarity. Anyway, the point of the drawing is to show how the wonderful and colourful diversity of humour is easily forced into the gaping maw of any all-purpose formulation that all jokes supposedly follow. A process that results in a basic multch of uniform colour and composition coming out the other end, thereby showing the unity underlying the diversity of humour for all to see. A procedure that gives us no insight into the nature of humour at all. Because by imposing this formulaic approach to humour, our machine has ground out all the detail and nuance of the individual joke under the general aim of making the subject fit the equation. To which we can add that whist unity is certainly a target worth aiming for, that aim should not be at the expense of the extraordinary diversity that is the other and greater side of humour.
So what about the alternative? That is, an approach that properly honours this diversity of humour by somehow teasing out all the many different themes and logics of joke natural history, thereby paying them proper attention, and giving every joke idea a different place and number in the overall scheme of things?
The ‘Pigeon Hole’ Approach
The Pigeon Hole approach respects the diversity of humour. It does so by setting up a classification of the complete range of joke natural history, mainly based on identifying the subject attacked in each joke idea (animal jokes, Irish jokes, Irish animal jokes). The result is an exhaustive classification – every subject is covered, subcategorised, cross referenced and generally taken to such an extreme that we end up with as many subjects as there are jokes, and as many jokes as there are subjects. To which the unfortunate result is a miscellany of categories as wide, as complicated, and as diverse as the reality it is attempting to classify. In fact, a result that is almost inevitable as long as there is no collective idea to connect the many leaves of the tree to the same trunk. Because in reality, the patterns of difference can only be revealed through their divergence from a given unity, and if this unity is not established first, then the resulting classification will be arbitrary and subjective.
Here then is the imagined ‘other end’ of the sausage machine approach. We can picture this as a gallery of endless drawers, each containing one or two cartoons, pinned down and classified to a level of specificity that belies the unit of humour in favour of an exhaustive taxonomy of jokes. As we see here below, where each little semantic butterfly is revealed, all on its own, in the pulled out storage case dedicated to its particular, specific, individual and unique existence.
What we see here is a semantic butterfly collection, where every specimen is so unique, that it deserves its own special case. An approach that certainly seems to do justice to the diversity of humour, but unfortunately with it, all sense of unity is lost. Because the boxes do not properly relate to each other, being arranged on the basis of an ad hoc set of subject boundaries, drawn up from the subjective categories of our colloquial language, this being the only convenient basis to hand. And without a serious basis for relatedness, the classification is just going to sit there, not even, as it were, twiddling its wings…
So, to step back for a moment, we can see that these two extremes are useful to imagine (and fun to look for in the literature on humour) because they make a simple point. Namely, that the only system that is going to succeed is the one that honours both the unity and the diversity of humour. Which in turn means that any model of the joke dynamics will have to point in two directions at once. One way being towards the huge range of actual and possible jokes, and the other, pointing towards the unity of all jokes, whatever their particular format and expression. Which means we have to create a system rather like the evolutionary tree we find in biology, where a vast range of different species have both their unity through time, and their diversity through their particular nature, both of which are respected and accounted for.
To which we should add, en passant, that our insight into humour will not be based on ideas from Biology, but rather on ideas about human meaning based on the human condition. Because the theories of Biology simply do not have the reach necessary for the explanation of this level three reality, and this will become increasingly obvious as this enquiry proceeds. But we have already addressed this point to some extent in the footnotes to ‘The Landscape of the Imagination’ in the section ‘Off the Map’, so let us just remind ourselves again of the T-shirt we used there.
What this T-shirt is saying therefore is that although we are biological entities, with pronounced physiological drives, it is what our imagination then makes of these drives, and indeed the conditions that it finds itself in, that then determines how these drives are harnassed and focussed (or even uncoupled from their original bio logic altogether as, for example, in the case of sex and contraception). So when we compare the evolutionary tree to the planned mapping of the humorous landscape, it is important to recognise that this is a metaphor only, and that the joke dynamics is not a logic that is open to the the ideas and principles of Bio Logic.
THE JOKE DYNAMICS – A FIRST FORAY
Common sense divides the joke idea into two parts: the subject, and the attack on the subject. For the joke to work, the subject has to be an area of shared experience, and it is the role of the attack to turn this area of shared experience into a source of amusement. The attack is the more active element of the two, which is why it seems natural to look upon the attack as the primary component of joke logic. So if the attack is the central element of the joke, then this leads us to several possibilities. One being that the nature of the attack is independent of the subject it twists, and the other being that the nature of the attack is entirely dependent on the identity of the subject area it attacks, whilst there is a third option where the attack is actually a combination of both these possibilities.
The idea of a central pool of attack patterns, a place from which all jokes draw their force, is an appealing one. The idea that a master list of permutations, independent of the subject, and consisting of a range of logical tricks (such as fission and fusion, exaggeration and reversal), is an idea that offers us a seemingly manageable solution to the identity of the joke. Whilst the alternative idea, which argues that the only way to define the joke is to first define the area attacked by it, is rather less appealing. Less appealing in the sense that if the devil lies in the detail, then we have to give up the tempting idea of a unifying secret code that unlocks all of humour. Meaning, in effect, that the real nature of the joke will remain a secret until the nature of the human condition itself has been resolved. Or, in terms of charting the contours of the human landscape, we have to map the world of meaning before the nature of humour becomes clear. Which, if true, constitutes a major blow to the student of humour, and especially to those attracted to the joke because of its apparent simplicity and containment. Because it means that the idea of the joke as a neat little semantic package only waiting to be untied for all its riches to be revealed would have to be replaced by the idea of the joke as an integral part of that much greater reality, the mainstream of human existence. A possibility which means that the joke will pose a much greater problem to our understanding.
The bad news being that it is indeed this second possibility that is largely the case. However, the good news is that because jokes actually help us map the areas they play with (by twisting them into an almost visible new shape), we can still progress with both our understanding of the joke, and our analysis of the landscape of meaning. So let us proceed with a first model of the joke dynamics.
The Subject of the Joke – The ‘Relationship’
So far, we have used the common sense terms of ‘subject’ and ‘attack’ to make meanings clear. But neither is really appropriate to an objective understanding of the dynamics of the joke, so it is time to introduce two terms that are appropriate. From now on then, we will refer to any distinctive area of human meaning, not as the ‘subject’, but as the ‘relationship’. The reason for this choice is that the term ‘Relationship’ immediately poses the question ‘Between what and what?’ A question that ties into the real nature of human meaning, which is more about connections than about the world of single, tangible things and events carried by the term ‘subject’. Anyway, this will become clearer as we progress deeper into the nature of two particular relationships in the later sections of this study. It is worth mentioning here that the two relationships we are going to look at in detail in the following sections have been chosen because they seem to apply to not only all known human cultures on this planet, but also to intelligent life elsewhere. Which would make them ideal contributors towards the much greater cause that is a general theory of meaning.
The Attack Pattern of the Joke – The ‘Twist’
To what extent can we describe the action of a joke as an ‘attack’? Well, as we have already said on the very first page, ‘jokes attack the boundaries and contour lines of the human landscape, momentarily twisting our cherished perceptions of the physical and Social Spaces that we live in. They coax the objects and values of this combined experience into unfamiliar postures, positions and alliances. The ‘twists’ that form the nucleus of this attack shadow the logic of human thought itself…’ So yes, jokes do attack our logic, and the term ‘twist’ describes this action perfectly.
It is the ‘Twist’ that lies at the centre of the joke dynamics – the twist is the active ingredient of the focus that is Humour. To wit, there are three big questions that then face us in its subsequent identification. Firstly, to what extent does a twist take its logic from the relationship it is playing with? Secondly, what is the nature of that logic? Thirdly, what alternative logic does the twist then propose in its focus on that relationship? (All of this becomes perfectly clear when it is applied to the material in the next section).
The Critical Third Element of the Joke – The ‘Legit’
Humans are quick to dismiss nonsense in their normal life. But in certain places – such as in jokes, stories, and films, – we expect a measure of fabrication. Indeed, this is what is meant by the term ‘poetic licence’. Poetic licence lowers the threshold for what is allowed, making it easier for the creator to keep an audience on board without upsetting them. So for example, a joke can buy time just by being a joke, because a measure of improbability is allowed and indeed expected thanks to the principle of poetic licence. But if the details of a joke or story venture too far, they will still need some form of support, or vital credibility will be lost. Thus the successful creator will supply that additional support, even though it may turn out to consist of a smoke screen that quickly disperses when looked at more closely.
Put another way, when two strings of meaning are twisted together, they will unravel if they are not immediately secured in some meaningful way. Which is where what the ‘legit’ comes in (‘legitimisation’ is too long a term to use, but the abbreviation serves well enough). So the task of the legit is to provide a provisional rationale for the twist. The legit is there to ensure that the joke is not just nonsense, but non sense that does after all somehow, and at least for the moment of the joke, make sense.
So although humour, like most artistic endeavour, benefits from the kind of artistic freedom that we know of as poetic licence, it still has to provide a legit to back up its twists, or it will look gratuitous, and as any stand-up comic knows very well, people won’t buy just anything when it comes to jokes.
So What is a Joke?
The essential dimensions of the joke have now been presented, and putting them together gives us an initial definition of the joke dynamics. In summary then:
A Joke is a Twist on a Relationship, secured with a Legit.
But this means very little in the abstract, and it is only when it is applied to the joke material in practice that this understanding of the joke dynamics achieves its real application and potential. So, for example, it may take quite a major effort to sketch out the boundaries of a relationship, let alone the ins and outs, before the nature of the twists that humour uses to play with its logic then become clear. Unless, that is, the pointed nature of the twists that shake up this logic actually help us to see the nature of this relationship more easily (which is why we have elected to take on humour as our guide in the first place). But any real understanding of the joke has to go further than explaining the logic of the twists that attack a relationship, and further than mapping that relationship in detail. Because the real acid test of any model we propose has also to aid in the creation of new jokes – it has to work in practice. So this definition is going to be subject to quite a lot of stress as we continue…
But now we can look again at the Think/Thwim story in the first section of ‘Take the Jester?’ using the three terms of ‘’Relationship’, ‘Twist’ and ‘Legit’ in order to examine their application and test their efficacy. The idea being that both the story and the terms will gain in clarity and significance in the process.
OK. On this basis, what are the joke dynamics of the Think/Thwim Story?
There are two twists in the Think/Thwim story, and they play with two areas of meaning. Along with these two twists, there are also two legits that support them. Here then is the summary:
Language – The relationship between Sounds, and their corresponding Meanings. Different meanings are normally distinguished by having different orderings of sound to avoid confusion in communication, but coincidences do occur, though the context of use generally makes such confusion avoidable.
Two different meanings may have the same or similar sound. A potential confusion that can be exploited in the pun. So ‘Thwim’ as a lisp sounds like ‘Swim’, allowing ‘Think’ to be interpreted as ‘Sink’, then leading to a fit with the well known expression ‘to sink or swim’.
Puns do exist naturally, but in this case, it is the result of deliberate act on the part of the Brits – a way to debunk the ‘THINK’ logo. An act that does not, in itself, have to be justified, because it is entirely explicable in terms of the normal human behaviour that we call ‘oneupmanship’. So the legit is that the deliberate use of the pun has its basis in reality – it is easy to believe the ‘true story’ claim that this anecdote uses, although whether it is really true is another matter.
So in this case, the relationship is literally that:the relationship between two major competitors in the world of IT, the US and UK teams, with the latter as the less powerful underdog. A relationship that belongs to a much greater category that includes such comparisons as Adult/Child, Male/Female, Upper/Lower class/caste, White/Black, Northern/Southern, British/French, English/Irish, Boss/Workers, Elders/Youngers, Doctor/Nurse, General/Private, and on and on and on through all the many many levels that the human race loves to establish in line with its various and varying value systems, all of which make prime targets for a switch in status and a re-valuation through humour.
On the Status Quo. Namely, a status reversal between the UK and the USA, with the underdog trumping the logo, and thus the very worth of the dominant side, through the very ingenious use of a double pun.
It (purportedly) happened. And if not, it could have (conceivably) happened.
A word on the first legit. Puns are a commonplace feature of any language, so we are not surprised when we come across one. But the fact that puns exist is not the issue in this joke. Rather, it is the occurrence and use of this particular example that has to be explained. An explanation that is ready to hand: it is a practical joke. Because practical jokes are, as we all know, a licence to do odd and abnormal things in the name of humour. Meaning that this pair of puns is just a playful example of how friendly rivalry can result in verbal, and in this case, written banter. That is, the puns belong to the ‘scheme of things humorous’, and if that sounds like humour exploiting its status as humour – by setting itself up as a source of legits for its very own twists – then that is indeed the case. As if humour is not so much biting its own tail, as patting itself on the back with it. (And this occurs with reasonable frequency in the literature, as we shall discover when we go through the cartoons).
The second legit (supporting the status reversal twist) is based on the idea that this really happened. Or at least that it could have happened (which is not quite so good, but who wants to really find out anyway?). Again, this is a category of legit commonly found in humour. We might call it the ‘Reality Legit’ because the claim that it makes is that, however odd the event, it did actually occur, and it is therefore to be taken seriously. Which means that no further justification is needed. After all, we do know that odd and unpredictable events can and do occur, so our tolerance for tall stories is quite high. So although the idea that the rivalry between these two large and serious corporations might have led to such an amusing verbal insult is possibly a little farfetched, we are happy to accept it. And given that its main support rests on our human enjoyment with practical jokes, we are happy to accept that humour is itself the main justification for the humour of the status reversal in this joke. However, the practical joke has to make sense too, and the rivalry between these two old friends is there to supply the motive for the deliberate attempt to debunk the US, which ties the knot nicely in place.
How then does this application of the Twist/Relationship/Legit model fare in this particular case? Well, the model seems good enough to explain all the principal elements required in the resolution of the joke at least. But we need to do more than that. Because a good model has to put this particular joke into the greater context of all the other jokes, so that it then fits into that much greater picture that is not just humour, but all the rest of human meaning as well. Namely, the human condition. After all, that is why we have chosen humour as our form of assistance in the pursuit of a map of meaning. So what part of the model points us in the right direction then? Because the twist is something that seems particular to humour (as we shall see later, it is not, but in general, this point about its relatively parochial nature serves us well for the moment), meaning that it does not point our quest beyond that stage. However the idea of the ‘relationship’ is another matter, because the whole point of the two relationships in the Think/Thwim joke, and in any joke, is that they form the basis of our world of meaning. True it is the twists that alert us to their presence and identity, but it is the relationships that make up the contour lines in our map of meaning. In fact, once we have begun to systematically define and understand these dimensions properly, we can claim to have begun the task of mapping our world in a scientific way.
But as we have already learnt to our cost, the pun is the worst place to begin such a quest, because puns are the mushrooms of coincidence, and pop up everywhere. So it would be better to find a set of twists that show an identifiable pattern within their particular relationship. Because then we can create new examples of the twist and satisfy the creative test that the model is supposed to satisfy, whilst at the same time using them to identify the logic of the relationship that they play with. All of which will become much clearer when we move from the pun to the ‘copy’, which is the subject of the next section.