Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Getting a joke: Some ramblings

A Jewish joke goes as follows:

A Polish nobleman laughs three times at a joke. First, when you tell it. The second time when you explain it. The third time when he gets it.

What does it mean to get a joke? The butt of this Jewish joke is the nobleman seen as both dense and unwilling to admit his stupidity. It sounds, then, as if to get a joke is a cognitive achievement.

Certainly, getting a joke has an intellectual component. A necessary condition for getting the above joke is knowing a number of salient facts about the relevant European culture, such as that intelligent people get jokes immediately and that people are expected to laugh at jokes only when they get them. If one does not know these facts, then one has not got the joke, even if one has found the joke funny for some other reason. To get a joke, then, requires that one be aware of certain facts that the author of the joke was aware of.[note 1]

But of course simply being aware of the salient facts is not a sufficient condition for "getting it". One also needs to be aware of these facts as salient to this joke.

What if one is aware of the salient facts, and aware of them as salient to the joke, but nonetheless one does not find the joke funny? (And here I do not just mean a case where someone says "That's not funny"—such an utterance can signal that one does find the joke very funny indeed but one wishes one did not.) Does one, then, get the joke? It is plausible that the thing to say in such a situation is that:

  1. It is false that one got the joke; and
  2. It is false that one failed to get the joke.
To fail to get the joke is not simply the denial of getting the joke. To fail to get the joke is an intellectual failing—it is to be dense in the way the Polish nobleman in the joke is dense, or at least not to be as smart or as knowledgeable as the teller. But to get the joke might be more than a purely cognitive achievement—it might require one not just to understand what makes the joke tick, but to actually experience the joke as funny. Or maybe the right thing to say is that one got the joke, but to cancel the standard implicature from "getting" to "finding funny".

In any case, in a situation where the listener is aware of all the salient facts, when she knows what makes the joke tick, but she simply does not find the joke funny, I think we are inclined to think of the failing as quite possibly on the side of joke-teller. It is not particularly embarrassing for the joke-teller that the Polish nobleman doesn't get the joke—rather, it is the nobleman who should be embarrassed. But if the nobleman fully understood the joke, but found it entirely unfunny, embarrassment would be appropriate on the side of the joke-teller.

There are many embarrassing ways the teller can fail here. For instance, the listener might have already heard the joke (it is interesting to ask why this is not a failure on the part of the listener) or one very much like it. The teller might have butchered the joke in delivery. The joke might not only be inappropriate (a morally and socially inappropriate joke can still be taken as funny) but inappropriate vis-à-vis the listener in such a way as makes it emotionally impossible for the listener to see it as funny (e.g., a joke about a disaster that the listener's loved ones have just suffered). But, finally, it might just be that the anecdote is simply not funny. This is the most embarrassing failure of the joke-teller qua joke-teller (a morally inappropriate joke is a failure of the joke-teller as a person, but at least prima facie not as a joke-teller).

I think if we think all these things through, we may still have room for some contextualized objectivity about jokes. There may well be such a thing as a joke being objectively humorous in a given context, independently of whether the listener actually gets the joke. A part of what happens when the nobleman gets the joke before his third laugh is that he realizes that the joke was all along humorous, though only now he has finally got it. But sometimes when one gets what the joke-teller was up to, one realizes that there was no humor there.

I find interesting the following question: Does the context of humorousness for a joke include an upper bound on the listener's intelligence and knowledge? After all, if a listener is too smart, she will see where the joke is heading and may therefore not see it as funny. If there is an upper bound, then it might be true that juvenile jokes really are objectively humorous in a context where the intelligence and knowledge is juvenile. And, if so, then probably nothing will be funny to an omniscient being—every joke will be juvenile to such a being, though the being will fully understand why the joke objectively is humorous to beings of our intelligence and knowledge.

Or are there some things that are objectively funny regardless of the intelligence of the perceiver? Maybe these "things" are not jokes, though. So, maybe, a joke requires an upper bound on the listener's intelligence and knowledge, but there may be humorous things—humorous facts, say—which are objectively funny to all. I find rather plausible that our hectic and silly lives of minor sins might be funny to the angels. But maybe the angels are too good-natured to laugh at them.


Chad McIntosh said...

This sheds new light on whether God has a sense of humor.

When I used to volunteer to help with a special ed/remedial English class, I recall what I thought to a hysterically conversation between one of the smarter kids and another whom required more attention:

"You're a dingo."
"What's a dingo?"
"I ain't tellin you"

And as if to correct his less-advanced peer on a well-established rule of name calling, he replied

"Why not? You can't call me somethin’ when I don't even know what it is. What's a dingo? Ain't it some sort of Mexican word?"

The kid calling the other a dingo found the word very funny. Though I saw nothing funny about the word dingo in particular, the state of affairs was highly humorous to a listener with an upper bound. The state of affairs which consisting in humor to the juveniles was sufficient for an observer with an upper bound to be humored. Like in the example, in the case of an omniscient being perhaps his knowledge of why the joke (or state of affairs) is humorous to juveniles is sufficient for him to be genuinely humored.

Tim Lacy said...

Dear Professor Pruss,

Great post. And thanks for emphasizing the failings of the joke teller. That party of your post reminds me of those times, as a kid, where I didn't laugh at my dad's jokes and he perceived it as my intellectual failing. But how, in light of the respect we're supposed to have for our parents, do you tell your dad that you think his joke isn't funny, or that it's inappropriate (many of his were)? It's hard to express these things between not laughing and then getting the "are you dense" look. But this is just my personal anecdote.

Anyway, one factor you allude to here, in a general way (and one, as an historian, I'm prone to think about) is the joke teller and hearer's ethnic, racial, or national cultural context. What if those kinds of jokes were not a part of your native culture? Are you then not getting them, or unintelligent? Of course not. Intelligence doesn't matter if the joke doesn't fit your native framework of funny.

- TL

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think that while a joke from another culture may not seem funny to me, I might nonetheless be able to explain why it is properly funny to the members of that culture (i.e., not just why the members of that culture laugh at it, but why it is funny to them).

Thus, you might know what set of assumptions members of culture C make, and thus, understand why a joke is funny in culture C, even though you are unable or unwilling to put yourself into a position where these assumptions are sufficiently alive to you for you to find the joke funny.