Thursday, 13 January 2011

Jokes and Poetry

Language is full of pitfalls and ambiguities. Usually we use rules of thumb to interpret what people mean. Grice (amongst others) attempted to list these rules. The co-operative principles he observed were -

  • Always contribute as much information as is needed in the exchange; not too much, and not too little.
  • Always try to say what is true.
  • Be relevant.
  • Be brief, clear, and orderly.
Readers assume that speakers are following these guidelines when they interpret phrases like
  • Members are requested to wash teapots after use and stand upside down in the sink
  • How long will the next bus be?
  • The police are looking for a man with a deaf-aid
Many jokes and poems depend on the author breaking their side of this contract. Shaggy dog stories, for example, are more effective the more they break the guidelines. Neither poems nor jokes are trying to compete with direct statements. Both exploit ambiguities in language, playing tricks by mixing the descriptive use of language with more linguistic uses. Hockett described jokes as 'layman's poetry', but I think that's rather unfair to jokes. For example, look at
  • Sum ergo cogito
    Is that putting Des-cartes before de-horse?
To understand this requires high readerly skills - noticing the quote; noticing the inversion; knowing that Descartes was French; knowing the cart/horse idiom. Perhaps this is more clever than funny, but often there's a fine line between flashes of insight and comic punchlines. The context affects the reception of the text. What about these - funny or clever?
  • Alas poor Yorlik, I knew him backwards
  • What do you call a man who used to be interested in tractors? Ans: An ex-tractor fan.
Wordplay, is, of course, only one of the numerous ways of provoking laughter. Sometimes there's no wordplay, as in
  • Answer the phone.
    It's not ringing.
    Why leave everything to the last moment?
Such jokes are easily translatable because they're about the world rather than words or the interaction between the two. Some poems are easily translatable too. However, many jokes do depend on the dual modes of language. Cicero wrote that "a witty saying has its point sometimes in facts, sometimes in words, though people are most particularly amused whenever laughter is excited by the union of the two". One way to demonstrate the gulf between the world and the word is to show how a little difference in a word can make a huge difference to the meaning.
  • He leaves 2 sons and a window
The context of a word affects its meaning too. In
  • Mummy, Mummy, I don't like Daddy.
    Then leave him on the side of your plate and eat your vegetables
the second sentence forces a retrospective recontextualisation. Such "flips" are common both in literature and jokes - readers are lulled into assuming something that turns out to be false.

Comprehension of jokes (and poems) passes through several stages

  • The first stage is to get the listener in the right frame of mind, to tell them that they're leaving the normal world. In poetry this is done by putting line-breaks before the right-margin. With jokes the performer can start with "I say, I say", or "did you hear the one about..." etc. Even something merely cryptic can be a sign that a joke is coming up - "Can a shoe box?" (answer: No, but a tin can) Put into this state the listener joins a world in which anything goes. In this receptive state the reader can see new potential in old material - hence the possibility of found poems and found jokes. The performer needn't play along though
    • What's the difference between an elephant and a letter box?
      I don't know. What is the difference between an elephant and a letter box?
      I shan't ask you to post a letter then!
    Longer jokes can depend on the real world returning to clash with the joke's world.
    • When the Cauliflower family are on their way to visit their friends the Radishes, little Jonathan has a bad accident, his leaves flying everywhere, and is rushed to hospital. His parents pace nervously outside the operating theatre. The surgeon comes out and says "I'm sorry to inform you that your son's going to be a vegetable for the rest of his life".
  • The next stage is often identification of the genre. Here again, the performer can play on expectations. In prose much use is made of expectation and surprise, but only at the plot level. In verse the effects are more pervasive - once the form, metre and rhyme-scheme are established, any deviations will gain significance. Jokes use some standard patterns
    • The Rule of 3 - In longer jokes (especially of the englishman/scotsman/irishman type) something happens, it happens again with a minor variation, then the punchline happens in the 3rd occurrence (Mozart does the same thing).
    • The joke as ritual - some jokes engage the reader in formulaic dialogue - "Knock knock", etc.
    • Shaggy dog story - the recipient knows the joke will be poor and that most of the narrative is inessential to the plot (though the reader still has to store information, and there's a final release)
    With jokes as with poetry new forms emerge, and variations of the form are developed. Readers need to recognise the form before they can appreciate the piece.
    • Examples rule, e.g.
    • Apathy rul
  • In some cases the language processing stage is transparent, but jokes often require the receiver to appreciate the difference between how the text might conventionally/logically be processed, and how the text offers an alternative interpretation. If the realisation of the difference is sudden, and the 2 interpretations sufficiently different, humour might arise. Each stage in the processing can lead to errors which jokes can exploit - misspellings, contextual misunderstandings, or, as in the next example, ambiguous parsing
    • His name is double-barrelled
  • Finally the receiver can enjoy the joke or poem. Some jokes fail because of a lack of shared understandings - not every country feels the same way about mothers-in-law, Irishmen, etc. Besides, personal tastes differ: "The concept of what people find funny appears to be surrounded by linguistic, geographical, diachronic, sociocultural and personal boundaries." (The Language of Jokes. p.5).
    There's pleasure in understanding difficult jokes which goes beyond smugness. Many jokes and poems succeed because they make the listener work. The writers of the Frasier comedy series (unlike those of Friends) deliberately add what they call 10-percenters (jokes which only 10% of people will understand) to cater for this. Jokes, like poems, aren't necessarily improved by making their "meaning" easier to understand. It's true that if a joke has to be explained, it's unlikely to be considered funny even once it's understood, but you shouldn't try to please everyone all the time.


What can poets learn from humorists? Quite a lot, I think. Jokes are generally simpler than poems. Some jokes are merely unexpected changes of meaning (often caused by a change of context) - the more surprising the better. It's easier to see how jokes work and fail (especially in translation) than to analyse the mechanics of poetry.
  • The Framing Problem - Sometimes it's difficult for the listener to know whether something is a joke or not. When a performer talks about their mother's death, maybe they're not joking. When the audience realises that it's allowed to laugh, relief adds to the effect of release. Writers can make art from this early uncertainty; the issue of whether prose or poetry conventions are appropriate can be a text's central theme. Poets and humorists (especially stand-up comedians) need to be able to anticipate how their audiences think, and need to steer their thoughts. Jokes generally destabilise language, increasing reader uncertainty, making them more easily led. Often no context is provided for a piece; each piece creates its own mini-world and the listener has to quickly work out the conventions. Whose fault is it when they get it wrong? If you (like Blake) begin a poem with "O rose, thou art sick!" should you expect modern readers to worry about the sanity of someone who talks to flowers? If you (like Frost) begin a poem with "Spades take up leaves/No better than spoons/And bags full of leaves/are light as balloons" are you trying to compete with Alan Titchmarsh?
  • Difficult lines - if Frasier can use 10-percenters surely poets shouldn't hesistate to use them too (though I agree that 10% of a poem's readership might be a small number).
  • Punch lines - Psychologists have already noted similarities between the aha! and Ha-ha effects. Some poems (especially those with wild analogies) try to be aha! but end up Ha-ha. If poets studied comedians more closely they might make such mistakes less often. They might also write better comic poems.


  • "The Language of Jokes", Delia Chiaro, Routledge, 1992
  • "Pragmatics", Grice, HP New York: Academic Press, 1961.
  • "De Oratore", Cicero, II LXI, 248
  • Christmas crackers

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