That Isn’t Funny

September 24, 2014
Posted by Jay Livingston

Most of the time, when people talk about humor – TV  sitcoms, movie romcoms, comedians, jokes, etc. – they’ll say things like, “That show is so funny,” or conversely, “That show is definitely not funny.” 

They assume that the funniness resides completely in the joke or show or comedian and that they themselves are objective observers.  But as any comedian knows, the funniness depends on the interaction between the joke and the audience. If everyone in the room is laughing, it doesn’t make much sense for you to say that the joke wasn’t funny. 

The funniness depends not just on the joke but on the ideas, assumptions, values, and knowledge that we bring to it. Some of that background knowledge is knowledge of other jokes.  Here’s a cartoon from the current New Yorker.

It stands on its own, I guess, but it’s funnier if you know the joke it’s referring to, which goes something like this.*

A grandmother (she doesn’t have to be Jewish, but she probably is, and she certainly was in the version that I first heard, and besides, it’s Rosh Hashanah, so we’ll say she is). A Jewish grandmother is standing at the edge of the ocean pointing out at the crashing waves and screaming for help. “My grandson, my grandson.” A lifeguard hears her, runs into the surf, swims out through the rough water, dives under, comes up with the boy, carries him back to shore, performs every kind of artificial respiration until finally the kid coughs and sputters and comes back to consciousness. The lifeguard, exhausted looks up at the grandmother. She looks down at him and says accusingly, “He had a hat.”

OK, maybe it’s not so funny on the page. If you heard me tell it in person . . . or maybe not even then.  Some guys know how to tell ’em (and that’s a punch line to another joke).  Anyway, the New Yorker cartoon is a meta-joke, a joke about a joke. But the other cartoons too, I realized as I paged through the magazine, require background knowledge. If someone from a distant culture, or a member of our own society who has not acquired that cultural knowledge (i.e., a child), looked at any of those cartoons, we would have to fill in that missing background. Without it, the joke would not be funny. Of course, then we’d be explaining the joke, and it wouldn’t be funny anyway. You can’t win.

But the larger point is that despite our sense that the funniness is in the joke or that the “wonderfulnesss” of a poem** lies completely within the joke or poem, we would be more accurate if we said, “That joke is not funny to me and to people like me.”

* Like many other teachers, I’m often disappointed and frustrated by students’ lack of cultural and historical knowledge. On the other hand, when I say, “It’s like the old joke . . .” I realize that most of them don’t know that joke. And if I tell it right, I get a laugh.

** Andrew Gelman and his commenters had a discussion about this recently (his blog post is here).

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