The Dead Chipmunk
An Interrogation Into the Mechanisms of Jokes
One day in August I went to campus to make some copies and retrieve a book from my office. My three-year-old daughter came with me as my “helper.” I had packed her a muffin and some milk, and I had promised her we would have a picnic when I finished what I had to do. After she helped me by pushing all the buttons in the elevator and spinning around fast in my swivel chair, we left the building, and I began to look for a good place for our picnic. I spotted a shady bench in a small courtyard, and I pointed the way. As we approached, however, I noticed, directly in front of the bench, a dead chipmunk splayed beneath a cloud of flies.
“Honey,” I said, putting my hand on her shoulder, “let’s look for another place.” I know by now I can’t shield or distract my children from all unpleasant things, but if I had the choice, I would rather not picnic by a dead animal and answer the inevitable barrage of questions about the chipmunk’s condition.
“Why?” she asked.
“Let’s just keep looking,” I said.
“Why?” she asked.
With my hand on her shoulder I managed to turn her away from the bench. “This is just not a very good spot,” I said. “How about over there?”
“Why, Dad?” she asked, trying to turn back around.
“There’s something over there,” I said, in effect rendering the bench irresistible.
“What is it?”
“It’s a chipmunk,” I said.
“Chipmunk?” She shook free from my hand and looked back toward the bench.
“Let’s go, honey,” I said. “That chipmunk is not alive.”
My daughter took a couple of steps toward the bench and stopped. Evidently she spotted the chipmunk. “Why?” she asked.
“It’s dead,” I said.
She turned back to me, her face clouded with worry. I knelt down beside her, put my hand on her head. “Let’s just go somewhere else,” I said.
“Yeah, Dad,” she said quietly. “We don’t want the dead chipmunk to eat our food.”
(1) I see now what happened. My daughter and I went to campus, and we became unwitting elements in the spontaneous generation of a joke. All of the requisite materials—protective father, inquisitive child, snacks, dead animal—were combined on a pleasant morning, and a joke was created. When joke genesis occurs in the real world (or even on a university campus), we have the opportunity to learn a great deal about jokes. How are they formed? What are their conditions and variables? Why—or how—are they funny? And what exactly is to be gotten when we get it?
(2) A character in Don DeLillo’s novel Americana says, “Underwear is humorous and only the undemocratic mind interrogates humor.” The idea here, I think, is that funniness belongs to individual citizens. Don’t tread on me, don’t try to tell me what is funny and why. The analysis of humor is, in its suppositions, presumptuous and dictatorial. The comic—and its mechanisms—should not be decreed from above. And of course this seems righteous and correct, but nevertheless I’d like to figure out why DeLillo’s funny statement on funniness is funny. I am, that is, compelled to analyze the humor in a sentence that warns against the analysis of humor. (“We murder to dissect,” sayeth Wordsworth.) The statement is comic, in part, because of the abrasion between the low-minded (underwear) and the high-minded (democracy, interrogation). The sentence yokes the sad banality of underwear and the noble abstraction of democracy—the reader must hold both in her mind, and the tension produces comic energy. Also, humorous is funnier than funny. Underwear is actually funny—those words belong to the same register—and yet Underwear is funny is not very funny. Humorous elevates the diction to a more formal level, and the slight mismatch between the noun and its adjective is comically ironic in its effect. That the interrogation of humor is undemocratic is a moderately difficult point. It is not immediately evident, and thus not immediately funny; it takes some thought to figure this out. But the sentence does not rely on its meaning for its humor. In fact, the connection between democracy and the interrogation of humor is not really intended to be funny—it’s a point of some substance—and it might be the case that the statement is funnier before we comprehend it. The sentence is funny immediately (before we understand it) because of the surprising elements that it contains. There is, in addition, a kind of umbrella irony at work. The keen, formal, interrogative, analytical voice of the sentence is here issuing a warning against interrogation and analysis. Someone capable of articulating this point is clearly not someone content to let the comic properties of underwear go unexamined—not to mention the fact that in this strongly worded verdict, the speaker is undemocratically castigating the undemocratic—so ultimately the sentence floats off into a kind of ludicrous paradox.
(3) The chipmunk story is, if not funny, at least comic, which is to say it has a comic form. The story, in fact, is shaped almost precisely like a joke. I can tell it as a joke rather than an anecdote if I make three simple changes:
(a) First, I have to shift from the first person (“One day in August I went to campus….”) to a very general third (“So a man and his daughter….”). Jokes are rarely if ever in the first person. The personality and idiosyncrasies of a narrator are irrelevant to the mechanism of the joke, and in fact they distract from the joke’s operation. (The exception here is the stand-up comedian, who in the course of an act or a career develops a kind of literary persona that is capable of generating a second-order or dramatic irony. The joke, that is, achieves more power from the friction between its content and its teller. Potentially offensive jokes, in particular—jokes about race or women—can become more complicated when there is an overarching question of narrative intent. This is the Sarah Silverman Effect: Did she mean that? Is this act an act? Where, precisely, is the joke located? Where is it emerging: from the content or from the speaker? Am I laughing at the offensive joke, or am I laughing at the ironic persona who holds such offensive and ridiculous positions? This gag can be thoughtfully or haphazardly executed. At its worst it is a craven mode, its practitioners lobbing bombs behind the Fortress of Irony.) In literature, a first-person narration tends to reveal something about the narrator—we find a meaningful gap, large or small, between what the narrator understands and what we as readers understand. Jokes as a rule are not dependent upon this kind of revelatory technique; while jokes depend upon irony (more below), they do not tend to utilize the irony that obtains in first-person narration. It is difficult, that is, to imagine a standard joke (not a comedian’s joke) that uses an unreliable narrator. (Though not of course in the context of a novel, where a man telling a dirty joke might very well reveal more about himself than he intends.) One reason is that jokes, which use a clear, simple setup and a final, surprising punch line, can’t afford to be that subtle or slippery. Another reason is that jokes point outward, not inward. They tend to be about language or groups of people or about the human condition in general. Thus our chipmunk joke requires the universal “man and his daughter.”
(b) The second step in joke conversion is to shift the joke from past tense to present to create more immediacy and energy, and to signify the story’s superficiality, its tonal purview, its jokiness. Present tense is part of the joke’s code (a man walks into a bar). Past tense moves us tonally toward fable, allegory, or tale (the genres of wisdom and instruction), which use the sense of the deep past as displacement, as a means of arriving at truths. Past tense creates gravity, present tense levity.
(c) Finally, I must delete the few vivid and particularizing details. Vivid description, used in literature to render a character or a scene unique and credible—lifelike—is a disruption in jokes. In the idiom of information theory, description acts as noise in a joke, weakening the signal, threatening the joke’s “information.” If I say, “A priest walks into a bar. He sits down on the stool and the bartender notices he has a chipped tooth…,” the receiver of the joke will expect that tooth to be relevant to the setup and the punch line. If it is not relevant, it endangers the joke’s effect by leading our attention astray. A joke-teller is a devious shepherd, and must herd all listeners to the Punch Line Deployment Zone, where they will be ambushed (by a kind of misinformation). In a literary context, the priest’s chipped tooth is revelatory or at least suggestive, though it needn’t be, in terms of the narration, strictly relevant or propulsive. That the detail is unnecessary is in fact a virtue in the context of the post-Chekhovian story. Particularizing detail is necessary, that is, precisely to the extent that it is unnecessary. One of the qualities Nabokov admired in “The Lady with the Little Dog” is that the story is in effect all noise, no information. “There is no special moral to be drawn,” Nabokov writes, “and no special message to be received.” Chekhov’s narrator, Nabokov notes, “seems to keep going out of his way to allude to trifles, every one of which in another type of story would mean a signpost denoting a turn in the action… but just because these trifles are meaningless, they are all-important in giving the real atmosphere of this particular story” (italics added). A joke, though, carries information in its setup. Atmosphere, if it is valuable, is valuable only to the extent that it carries the joke forward and establishes a clear code or pattern that can be disturbed by the punch line.
(4) If we retain the basic form but change the point of view and verb tense, and if we streamline the anecdote to render its particulars more bland and general, we have this dead-chipmunk joke: A man and his young daughter are out for a walk and a picnic on a beautiful summer day. After an hour of walking, the girl becomes tired and hot and hungry, and so the father says, “OK, honey, let’s look for a good spot for our picnic.” “Why?” the girl asks. “Because we’re hungry,” the father says. “And as soon as we find a nice shady place, we’ll have our picnic.” Soon he sees a perfect spot—it has soft grass to sit on, it’s in the shade of a tall and beautiful tree, it even has an old tree stump to use as a table. The father takes the girl’s hand and says, “Let’s go right over there beneath that big tree.” “Why?” the girl asks. “Because,” the father says, “it’s a perfect spot for our picnic.” They walk to the tree, and just as the father is about to spread the blanket on the ground, he sees a dead chipmunk nearby in the grass. Not wanting his young daughter to see the dead animal, the man quickly picks up the blanket, takes his daughter’s hand, and says, “Sweetheart, I’ve got an idea. Why don’t we move to that tree over there.” “Why?” the girls asks. “It’s a much better place for a picnic,” he says. The girl starts to ask why, but then she sees the chipmunk. “Dad, look, it’s a chipmunk!” she screams. The father turns the girl away from the chipmunk, and he kneels down in the grass to talk to her. “Honey, the chipmunk is dead,” he says. “Let’s go over there for our picnic.” The girl stares at the chipmunk, then looks at her father. Her eyes are beginning to water and her lips are quivering. “Yeah, Dad,” she says. “We don’t want that dead chipmunk to eat our food.”
(5) Kurt Vonnegut called jokes mousetraps. This metaphor fits into a traditional conception of humor as a form of violence. (Freud theorized that humor is an act of aggression.) Much of the language of comedy is hostile. We say of funny people that they kill us or slay us. A comic will say that a joke killed, which is the opposite of bombed. We say of wit that it is either dull or sharp, and a sharp wit might be called rapier. Dull humor clubs us over the head or even bludgeons us. We describe wit as mordant and sardonic. The root of mordant is the Latin mordere (“to bite”), and the root of sardonic is the Greek sardonios, referring to a plant on the island of Sardinia that (according to legend), when ingested, makes you laugh so hard you die. By comparison, Vonnegut’s mousetrap is fairly innocuous, though illuminating. To be certain, there is an element in joke-telling of entrapment by lure, and there is a sense that the receiver (the victim) walks into the joke, following desires or expectations toward the punch line. As many jokes work by swift and precise reversal (of expectation or logic), you could call the very form of the joke cunning and aggressive. Punch lines—they’re called punch lines—are often short and sharp. They are brutal in form if not content. If the receiver of the joke does not feel punched, he might feel as if he has been blindsided or as if he has suffered a kind of logical whiplash. Vonnegut, though, wasn’t talking explicitly about the violence of joke-telling. He was talking about the craft of joke-telling, the mechanism of the joke. The joker sets the trap—just as there is potential energy stored in a compressed spring, there is tension in the joke’s setup—then springs it. The punch line snaps, harnessing and releasing the joke’s energy.
(6) The mousetrap is a good way to speak of a certain kind of joke that snaps shut. The punch line is final and utter, a closing, a flipping of a switch. Once you “get it,” you’ve gotten it. Here’s a joke: The Invisible Man walks into the doctor’s office. He goes to the front desk and tells the receptionist he’s here for his appointment. The receptionist says, “Please wait here, I’ll go tell the doctor.” A moment later she returns and tells the Invisible Man, “I’m sorry, I’m afraid he can’t see you right now.”
(7) When Mr. Irony renounces irony in Padgett Powell’s exceedingly funny story “Mr. Irony Renounces Irony,” he must choose a suitable conceptual replacement for the ironic. He chooses the childlike term surprisy, trying in effect to salvage a comic vision of life by purging cynicism and emphasizing wonder. (That the substitution of surprisy for ironic is inescapably ironic adds another comic dimension to the story.) Surprisy, though, is actually just about the best anyone has ever been able to do to account for humor. Surprisy is our prevailing theory for why our species laughs, which is after all a weird thing to do. Most theories of humor—most notably the Incongruity Theory—posit that humor grows out of surprise. As Pascal wrote a long time ago, “Nothing produces laughter more than a surprising disproportion between that which one expects and that which one sees.” Surprise here is kind of an umbrella term, and there are many ways of articulating surprise—incongruity, wordplay, reversal, non sequitur and all logical fallacy, the mixture of high and low, vulgarity, inappropriateness, and of course irony, which can be formulated as a (surprising) difference or gap: between what is said and what is meant, between what happens and what we expect to happen, between what a character knows and what a reader/viewer knows. (Sarcasm being the crudest form of irony: “Analyzing humor. Yeah, that sounds like a blast.” The mental processing of irony involves recognizing the gap and interpreting it.) Laughter, according to the Incongruity Theory, can be seen as the physiological response to the cognitive act of resolving the surprise. Some theories of humor (the Ontic-Epistemic Theory is a real knee-slapper) contend that funny things short-circuit the brain, causing a fleeting cognitive lockup or a kind of tiny metaphysical stroke. In this model, a joke creates a small tear in our notion of the real, the brain rushes in to mend the rip, resolve the incongruity, and our subsequent smile or chuckle or guffaw is an act of profound relief. Humor, then, emerges in a sense from terror, as the mind gets a tiny peek at the void, then quickly nails a board over the crack to preserve its illusion of mastery, control, meaning, order, reality.
(8) All of this happens almost instantaneously, of course, and none of it enters our consciousness. (And so, like a lot of psychological theory, including almost all of Freud, these claims are unverifiable and thus not even scientific. But it’s still fun to think about.) If we could somehow adapt the kind of slow-motion technology CBS uses for its golf coverage, we might be able to watch what happens when the brain receives a joke, let’s say the Invisible Man joke above. We would see, first of all, that the joke creates anxiety, a heightened state of awareness and tension. The joke is a threat. There is, superficially, the real worry that we might not get it, that we might be made to look foolish. But the more dire threat exists at the level of language and meaning. He can’t see you right now. The word see means different things, and the mind must confront this multivalence, a fundamental instability of language. It’s a crisis of reference, correspondence. To think, to communicate, we need words to stand for things. This is just a dumb pun, but it opens up to chaos, to Babel. This Invisible Man joke is dangerous—it’s a virus that threatens to crash the entire meaning-making system. At this point—remember, this is slo-mo—the joke-receiving mind regains its composure, then enters the breach to isolate and quarantine the pun. See, in the context of the joke, means only two things, just two. Can’t see you right now is figurative—in medical argot, it means the doctor is busy. And can’t see you right now is literal—the patient is invisible. The mind can hold these two meanings down, contain them, recognize them simultaneously. What a relief! The world as we know it is preserved. The mind can then order the mouth to laugh, or, better yet, to groan. The mind can order the mouth and hands to do that drum thing that people do after bad jokes, but to do it—this is important—in a way that seems to make fun of doing the drum thing after bad jokes…. All of this, more or less, occurring in a split second.
(9) A pun—like any mousetrap joke—is what we might call a one-alarm joke. The brain jumps out of bed, slides down the pole, races to the scene, and “gets it”—i.e., sees both meanings at once, resolves the ambiguity, thus restoring order and security. It’s a kind of infection control. This activity of our Cognitive First Responders is experienced as pleasure, whether or not it is based in abject fear.
(10) (A pun is, on rare occasions, witty, though it is rarely if ever funny. Most often, puns are dreadful, though if puns are employed relentlessly and conceptually, as in Shakespeare and Joyce, they can achieve power, though not necessarily comic power. As Doctorow writes of Joyce’s preconceived aesthetic: “I will pun my way into the brain’s dreamwork.” Punning can be an assault on consciousness and order, a way to evince a frightening instability beneath the seen and the known. Puns suggest (demonstrate) that meaning is slippery, that other meanings lurk behind words like spirits. In Shakespeare, punning is related to the preoccupation with doubling, with ambiguity, with sleeping and dreaming, with the question of the real. A pun is the linguistic analog of the forest in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and it might be comic, but it’s also kind of spooky.)
(11) Some jokes, though—call them three- or four-alarm jokes—manage to punch multiple holes in our ontic-epistemic fabric. (Well, that’s all right, because we like the way it hurts.) Faced with a breakout of the surprisy, the brain must recognize and resolve these numerous incongruities, and the mending process is sequential. Each surprise comprises two or more elements (what we expected and what we received). For each surprise, the mind must do more than one thing at once, simultaneously holding the incongruous elements. The brain can do more than one thing at once, but it can’t do more than more than one thing at once at once. One surprise at a time, that is. A joke like this does not snap like a mousetrap but pops like a string of firecrackers. The process of getting it is not instantaneous.
(12) On an episode of The Office, Pam sets up Michael with her friend Julie. As Michael and Julie get to know each other, Michael asks her about her work. Julie says, “I’m an ESL teacher.” Michael says, “Really? See, I didn’t think you could teach that. I thought that was something you were born with. What am I thinking right now?” To which Julie answers, “Are you thinking I said ESP?” We can analyze this sequence, but one way to know a multi-alarm joke is by sensation. You can feel certain jokes rattling through your mind like Plinko chips. This particular joke is not outrageously complex, but it doesn’t resolve instantaneously. When Michael says, “What am I thinking right now?” we must scramble, in the middle of their conversation, to break the joke down into meaning: Julie teaches English as a Second Language and Michael thinks she teaches extrasensory perception. Wow, is he dumb. This is very basic dramatic irony—there is a gap between what Michael understands and what we understand—but it is expressed rapidly and indirectly. With a degree of wit, that is, and a respect for the audience. We have to execute at least three steps here. First, since Michael does not actually say ESP, we have to convert “What am I thinking right now?” into the proposition “Michael thinks she means ESP.” Second, we have to recognize the difference between what Michael thinks to be true (ESL is ESP) and what we know to be true (ESL is not ESP), and, third, we have to interpret that difference (Michael is an idiot). If we can process this incongruity, it feels nice. (Aristotle thought humor arose from a feeling of superiority.) We are inclined to laugh, but there is not time. Michael’s line is not delivered as a zinger, and there is no laugh track to slow the scene. Julie’s answer is coming quickly on the heels of his question, so we have to stay alert. The dumb irony in Michael’s line is a joke, but it’s a setup, not the punch line. Without hesitation Julie says, “Are you thinking I said ESP?” A good way to ruin a joke is to explain it, and Julie’s line seems at first merely to be explaining the ESL/ESP confusion in case we didn’t catch it on the fly. And indeed, she is subtly recapitulating for our benefit, but she is also extending and layering the joke. Julie could have said, “I have no idea what you’re thinking. I teach ESL.” That line does one thing only, hammering home the single joke so that absolutely nobody will miss it. But Julie’s question introduces further incongruity. The substance of her question is that Michael is mistaken about her ability to read minds—Are you thinking I said ESP? Because that’s not what I said. You obviously think I can read minds, but I can’t. But in answering Michael’s question about what he’s thinking, Julie is in a sense actually reading Michael’s mind—he had in fact thought that she meant ESP. She disavows mind-reading ability precisely in the act of mind-reading. This is a classic paradox, a logical impossibility originating, in this case, from the incongruity between what she is saying and what she is doing. And, alas, the mind’s work is not quite done, because this paradox has comic meaning. It isn’t paradox for paradox’s sake; it must be interpreted: Michael is so transparent that his mind can be read by an ESL teacher. In a sense, Michael was so outrageously wrong about ESP that he was right—Julie can read minds.
(13) (Most viewers of The Office do all of this without any analysis, of course. The mind does its work, the mouth laughs. We are largely unconscious of the mechanisms of the joke and the activity of our minds. Viewers know it’s comic—they don’t need to know why. Understanding or articulating the joke is not the same thing as getting the joke, and it is not, thank god, requisite. An explanation of the joke is in fact an explanation of how we almost immediately got it, even if the joke made us scramble.)
(14) A man walks into a diner for lunch. He looks on the menu board and reads the day’s specials: cheese sandwiches for two dollars and hand jobs for five dollars. He walks up to the counter, where a pretty woman at the register says to him, “So, what can I get you today?” And the man says, “Yeah, why don’t you go wash your hands and then make me a cheese sandwich.” This is—I decree it—a sophisticated and nuanced joke, and all the more so because it initially appears to be such a stupid and flimsy joke. There are, in and around this diner gag, multiple incongruities existing at different orders or levels. The most basic and readily graspable incongruity is about appetite or hunger—the man surprisingly chooses food over sexual gratification. The specific elements of the joke accentuate this initial incongruity. It’s lunch, not dinner (at dinner we might expect him to be hungrier), and it’s a cheese sandwich and not, say, a roast-beef sandwich. (Meat would be latently sexual and masculine in the joke, and choosing meat over sex would not be as surprising.) Cheese sandwich is funny here because it’s so innocuous, so nonsexual, such a powerful underdog when pitted against sexual contact (though admittedly hand job is also comic and not raunchy, not the stuff of erotic fantasy or wish-fulfillment). Certainly this is a joke that depends on gender stereotype to create incongruity—the man here is (surprisingly) not acting like a man. In this way the joke is sexist, but its sexism ultimately targets women. The man is ridiculous because he is acting like a not-man, i.e., a woman. But there is more going on, including a tonal incongruity in the punch line. The man’s lunch order, which can be delivered in the manner of a cowboy, is vaguely sexual. He’s literally ordering, and it registers like dirty talk. There is obvious irony here, a gap between what he orders and how he orders. He’s not really acting childlike or innocent or “feminine.” He’s acting worldly and stereotypically masculine: he knows what he wants and he’s asserting it. This argues against the point about sexism above, but probably introduces another form of sexism. The man is toying with the woman, he doesn’t need her (though she is pretty), he is not vulnerable to her explicit sexual availability, and in fact he prefers a vegetarian sandwich to her touch. In comic tradition, men are brought low, made foolish, by sexual desire, and here you might say there is a reversal of that potential reversal in which the woman becomes the fool: the man spurns sex, orders a comic food item, and still retains his masculinity and dominance. (At any rate, we can be certain that the joke trades on gender, because the man and the woman are not interchangeable—the joke would lose force and meaning if we switched their roles. It might, in fact, cease to be a joke altogether.)
(15) OK, but I think the joke also operates on a higher plane, at the level of joke-telling itself. To fully get it, the mind must confront meta-joke incongruity. When the man reads the sign in the diner—cheese sandwiches and hand jobs—the joke suddenly opens up into incongruous space. It becomes a dirty joke, first of all, but more fundamentally it becomes a joke. Major incongruity is introduced before the punch line. Why would a diner offer hand jobs and cheese sandwiches? That’s absurd and illogical—it’s not what diners do. (This is the joke’s ontological threat, its challenge to the idea of diner-ness, which in effect is a challenge to the very concept of the real. It is startling, says the Ontic-Epistemic Theorist of Humor, for the brain to be reminded that diners are part of social reality, that their characteristics are made, not discovered, and that a diner is fundamentally different from, say, a tree.) Consequently, our minds sound the alarm, issue a red alert. Cognitively, we rush into the joke space opened up by the absurd or unreal diner, and there we prepare for further surprise as a pretty woman behind the counter asks what this man wants. We are now in a heightened state of incongruity-readiness. All hands on deck. But then: the man orders a cheese sandwich…. So it’s not, after all, a dirty joke. The imagination had opened out into prurience—even though I know this is not a real diner, I can contain it and allow for the lascivious action to come—but the man’s order is not dirty. It is literally clean (“go wash your hands,” he says). The man does not step through into the alternative reality of a dirty joke, or of any joke at all. He does not enter the incongruous world created by the setup. The setup, that is, is a trick, a kind of bait and switch. The receiver of the joke steps into the joke space—we are ushered into the dirty diner by the joke’s premise—but the joke doesn’t take place there. The man in the diner remains in the real world, a real diner. Unlike us, he has not been forced to realize that diner is a social construct and not a natural kind. He is not suffering from ontological shock. He is hungry and he wants a sandwich for lunch. He does, more or less, what anyone would do. He is a consummate straight man, and the straight man rarely delivers a punch line. And in fact, the man in the diner does not really deliver a punch line, either. (Note that his order is not elegantly rhythmic or punchy. It’s artfully prolix.) He is not making a joke. Generally speaking, a man ordering a sandwich in a diner is not funny or surprising or incongruous in the least, and yet his order is surprising because the joke has lured us out of the real, and, in the context of the unreal, the real has the power to startle us once more. The paradox is that we expect to be surprised and we aren’t, which is a tremendous surprise. A non–punch line in the slot of the punch line is a kind of grand meta-joke punch line. This is a Gotcha! joke, and a simple, beautifully designed experiment conducted on the mind. In deceptively refusing to play by the rules of jokes, this joke reveals the activity of the joke-receiving mind. In a way it plays a joke on the mind. By not working, it shows us how jokes work. Ultimately, the joke is that you thought it was going to be a joke and it wasn’t a joke.
(16) Now you try one. Read the following joke and then explain why it is funny. (Answers below, in note 24.) A man walks into a bar holding an octopus. He sits on a stool, puts the octopus on a stool beside him, and announces, “This octopus is a musical genius. He can play any instrument in the world. If you bring an instrument up here, I’ll bet you a hundred dollars this octopus can play it.” There is a great commotion in the bar, and someone eventually comes forth with a guitar. The man takes the guitar and hands it to the octopus. The octopus slowly extends its tentacles all over the guitar, feeling the tuning keys, the fret board, and the strings. Then he uses the tips of three tentacles to press down strings, and with another tentacle he gently strums a G chord. The man with the octopus gets his hundred dollars and says, “Who else wants to bet? I’ll bet you one hundred dollars this octopus can play whatever instrument you bring.” A few minutes later, a guy comes up to the bar and gives the octopus a flute. The octopus takes the flute with two tentacles, and with its others it begins to probe the instrument, gingerly touching the lip plate, the keys, the tuning slides. Then it raises the flute, puts the mouth hole beneath its beak, arranges its tentacles on the keys, and blows a decent C-major scale. The man collects his money and says, “All right, anyone else? Anyone else want to bet me that this octopus can play any instrument you give him?” Just then a man bursts through the door with a bagpipe. “Here,” he says, handing the bagpipe to the octopus. Once again, the octopus extends its tentacles all over the instrument, touching and probing the bagpipe. The tentacles gingerly move over the blowstick, the drones, and the bag. This happens for quite some time, the octopus continuing to touch the bagpipe without playing it. Eventually the bartender comes over and says to the man next to the octopus, “Well, buddy, is he going to play it or not?” And the octopus says, “Play it? If I can get these pajamas off, I’m going to fuck it.”
(17) Let’s return, at last, to the chipmunk anecdote that is so easily rendered as a joke. The germ of this undemocratic interrogation is my daughter’s comment “We don’t want the dead chipmunk to eat our food.” When she said it, I immediately felt the kind of cognitive whirring that signifies multi-incongruity resolution. I was struck with that glazed, faraway look that is so inappropriate for a picnic. Before I “got it,” before I understood why it was comic, I understood that it was comic, that it was in essence the punch line of a joke. This joke has a simple, archetypal premise (on a beautiful day a man and his daughter are looking for a place to picnic); a complication (the man sees a dead chipmunk); a brilliant straight man (the father); a reversal (the girl gets the last word); tonal complexity (gravity and levity intertwined); well-calibrated variables (picnic [not bar], dad [not mom], girl [not wife], chipmunk [not dog]); a rhythmic and patterned sequence of dialogue (the girl’s repetition of “Why,” as well as the short beat before the punch line that misleadingly implies that the girl is upset about death); and numerous ironies that cannot be processed simultaneously or immediately. I’m not claiming that the joke is hilarious, only that its form and composition provide an opportunity for the exploration of the phenomenon of humor. The anecdote’s inherent jokeness makes it an ideal case study in what jokes are and what they do.
(18) The initial incongruity is obvious, and it resides within the girl’s statement. Dead chipmunks don’t eat. Dead chipmunks don’t do anything, and they particularly don’t take nourishment. Also, the girl says, “We don’t want the dead chipmunk to eat our food,” rather than “The dead chipmunk might eat our food.” The introduction of her desire—what she wants and doesn’t want—deepens the incongruity: What the girl and dad don’t want the chipmunk to do is irrelevant; death has removed the chipmunk from the sphere of their desires. Further, the girl’s phrasing implies that the dead chipmunk, given half the chance, will eat their food. For her, moving to another spot is not a precautionary measure; it’s an emergency procedure. But the illogical punch line opens up into further incongruity when it is regarded in the larger context of the situation and the interlocutors. The girl’s statement is decidedly not an instance of wit. If an adult delivers this line—say, an adult in an Oscar Wilde play—then we have the operation of wit, an intentionally ironic and absurd statement intended to create laughter or pleasure. Again, this young girl is not displaying wit. (The acme of my three-year-old daughter’s wit is a mock threat, delivered through gasping laughter, to poop on her older sister’s bed.) Her fear that the dead chipmunk will eat her food is real, and thus the punch line is an example of dramatic irony, an incongruity between what she understands and what the receiver of the joke understands. Dead chipmunks don’t eat (irony 1), and the girl doesn’t know that dead chipmunks don’t eat (irony 2). The force of the second irony is the funny/sad realization that the girl has no conception of death and is just concerned about her lunch. The identity of the speaker is crucial to the force and meaning of the joke. (Imagine, for instance, if the punch line was delivered by the man’s witty, grumpy teenage daughter. The irony is still doubled, but the second irony is pointed in a different direction. It becomes a mordant, sarcastic jab at the father. “Yeah, we don’t want the dead chipmunk to eat our food.” In other words, “You are an idiot, Dad, for being so worried about that stupid chipmunk. I hate you. Can I have a car?” Or a spouse could deliver the line in a way that was either vicious derision or affectionate kidding, etc.) The first irony (dead creatures don’t eat) is not that compelling, but if the irony is doubled by context (who is speaking and to whom), the line becomes more complex. Years ago, the young daughter of a coworker told me a joke. She said, “Why did the man throw a stick of butter out the window?” Before I could even respond with my obligatory I don’t know, why?, the girl said, “Butterfly! Joke! Joke! Joke!” And then she laughed and laughed. Here the joke is not funny at all, and in fact is barely coherent. What is funny is that the girl thinks you activate a joke by yelling the word joke. (And I laughed when she told her “joke,” no doubt reinforcing her misconception.) She has no idea what a joke is or what it does, and it is this second-order irony that is comic.
(19) The father in the chipmunk joke is worried. His earnest fear drives the joke and sets up the punch line. (The perfect straight man appears not to know he is in a joke, and, as I actually did not know I was in a joke, I gave an amazing performance.) The father does not want his daughter to see a dead animal, doesn’t want her to direct her stereotypical childlike curiosity (established with a pattern of whys) to the abstract notion of death. He doesn’t want to have to explain the idea of death, and he also wants to protect her. His desire and his expectations propel the joke and lay the groundwork for a comic reversal. In the punch line, the girl—surprise—also wants to go elsewhere. She is so oblivious to death that she is not even curious about it. Like her father, she is also afraid, though her concern is primal. She is hungry, she wants her food, she doesn’t want something else to eat her food. And so a further surprisy element arcing over the joke is that the father is indeed protecting his daughter, but not at all in the way he intended. This is the final work to be done in processing the joke: the daughter’s dramatically ironic punch line—an unwitting expression of what she does not understand—actually serves to illuminate what the father doesn’t understand. He doesn’t understand how his child thinks or what she thinks or what she wants. He hasn’t accounted for her hunger, her aliveness. The child’s irony points not simply to her innocence but to her father’s abstraction. Her ignorance ultimately reveals his ignorance, and this is the comic reversal, the wise adult brought low.
(20) For all of its superficial, mouths-of-babes cuteness, the joke is dark and elemental: death, food, fear.
(21) The elements and variables of the joke are essential to the quality, strength, and vector of surprise. Just as a teenage daughter creates a different effect than a three-year-old daughter, and a cheese sandwich creates a different effect than a roast-beef sandwich, a dead chipmunk is significantly different from, say, a sleeping chipmunk. The joke needs an unconscious creature, but there are varieties of unconsciousness, and death happens to be funnier than sleep. Death, pain, and suffering are often the very conditions of humor. (There were no jokes in Eden, as Donald Barthelme said.) Underlying this joke is the fact that all living things die—including, of course, the father and the daughter—but the daughter does not understand this yet. The brute fact of mortality is awful to contemplate, and the girl’s ignorance is poignant—she will in the years to come fall from this state of blissful not-knowing into an awareness of death, and that, believe me, is sad. But gravity often enhances a joke, or, more precisely, gravity is often inseparable from the joke. A joke brings us close to the most uncomfortable truth, but then allows through its punch line a release of anxiety and fear. It has been said many times before that humor arises from pain, that laughing and crying are similar responses, though no one has said it as well as Kurt Vonnegut:
Laughter is a response to frustration, just as tears are, and it solves nothing, just as tears solve nothing. Laughing or crying is what a human being does when there’s nothing else he can do. Freud has written very soundly on humor—which is interesting, because he was essentially such a humorless man. The example he gives is of the dog who can’t get through a gate to bite a person or fight another dog. So he digs dirt. It doesn’t solve anything, but he has to do something. Crying or laughing is what a human being does instead. I used to make speeches a lot, because I needed the money. Sometimes I was funny. And my peak funniness came when I was at Notre Dame, at a literary festival there. It was in a huge auditorium and the audience was so tightly tuned that everything I said was funny. All I had to do was cough or clear my throat and the whole place would break up. This is a really horrible story I’m telling. People were laughing because they were in agony, full of pain they couldn’t do anything about. They were sick and helpless because Martin Luther King had been shot two days before. The festival had been called on the Thursday he was shot, and then it was resumed the next day. But it was a day of grieving, of people trying to pull themselves together. And then, on Saturday, it was my turn to speak. I’ve got mildly comical stuff I do, but it was in the presence of grief that the laughter was the greatest. There was an enormous need to either laugh or cry as the only possible adjustment. There was nothing you could do to bring King back. So the biggest laughs are based on the biggest disappointments and the biggest fears.
“We wouldn’t want the sleeping chipmunk to eat our food”—that punch line is still ironic, it still activates the joke, but it’s not as funny, because it’s not unsettling. A sleeping chipmunk makes the joke light and silly, ephemeral. The dead chipmunk gives the joke weight, a tangled tone, and a reason to be told. Humor is, as Gregory Bateson said, “the great alternative to psychosis.”
(22) A sleeping animal shades the joke lighter. For a darker shade—for more comic impact—the joke requires something dead. The identity of the dead thing is another of the joke’s variables. Real life supplied us with a chipmunk, and that works fairly well. A chipmunk is more poignant than a lizard, less manipulative and unsettling than a puppy. It’s a small mammal—it’s cute—but it’s skittish and undomesticated. A squirrel can water-ski, but a chipmunk can’t. (Besides, let’s face it, chipmunk, like bagpipe and hand job, is just a funny word.) A dead walrus introduces absurdity. A dead baby introduces shock and tastelessness. A dead soldier or senator might turn the joke political. A dead member of a racial or ethnic group introduces taboo and extreme offensiveness. In his famous story “The School,” Donald Barthelme exploits this spectrum of gravity, this hierarchy of dismay. Edgar, the narrator and a teacher, is disconcerted by the number of things that have died at the school during the year. First, the pet snakes died. Then the trees that the children planted. (“All these kids looking at these little brown sticks, it was depressing.”) Then herb gardens. Then gerbils, white mice, a salamander. (“Well, now they knew not to carry them around in plastic bags.”) Then tropical fish. (“Of course we expected the tropical fish to die, that was no surprise. Those numbers, you look at them crooked and they’re belly-up on the surface. But the lesson plan called for a tropical-fish input at that point, there was nothing we could do, it happens every year, you just have to hurry past it.”) And then the story turns: “We weren’t even supposed to have a puppy….” Then a Korean orphan. Then “an extraordinary number of parents” and “the usual heavy mortality rate among grandparents, or maybe it was heavier this year.” And finally two children from the school. “I forgot to mention Billy Brandt’s father,” Edgar then inserts, “who was knifed fatally when he grappled with a masked intruder in his home,” a sentence that is as much about polluted language as it is about Billy’s deceased father. Because of Barthelme’s tone and comic phrasing and the inexorable escalation stipulated by form, this sequence remains comic throughout, but the quality of our laughter shifts as we encounter puppy, orphan, parents, grandparents, students. You could say that the story gets funnier in precise correlation to the severity and gravity of its content. The ironic gap between what is being told and how it is being told grows wider and wider, causing greater discomfort and greater humor. If you could watch a film of an audience hearing a reading of “The School,” you would see a lot of interesting faces. You would see bodies reacting to incongruity, even dramatizing it, hands cupped over laughing mouths.
(23) Does the dead-chipmunk joke work if it’s a mother and a daughter out on a picnic, or a mother and a son, or a father and a son? If you choose a different parent/child permutation, I think the joke remains a joke, but just barely. Father/daughter is the most compelling and comic permutation, for gendered reasons that may not be good but are nonetheless real. The father as straight man is necessary for irony because the father is, stereotypically, the protector, but also, I would argue, because the father is a stereotypical bumbler. (When this caricatured bumbling is embraced by men, as it often is, it becomes a way to avoid domestic work, and their partners suffer. In my home this phenomenon is called, with various degrees of gentleness, feigned incompetence.) A mother, who is aware of her child’s needs and desires, and who possesses a natural wisdom and a special connection to the child, would not be as effective in creating the preconditions for a comic reversal. And though the joke could function with a boy, a girl probably creates—again, stereotypically—more of a sense of innocence and vulnerability and pathos.
(24) Here are the answers to the octopus joke above:
— There is a disjunction not only between a real octopus and a talking octopus, but between the octopus that appears to be mute in the joke’s setup and the octopus who passionately delivers the punch line. Suddenly, we are reoriented—we learn that this creature is not just some primitive musical prodigy but a disgruntled, articulate, foulmouthed, sexually frustrated, and poignantly mistaken bar trick. The premise—the octopus’s fine musicianship—is not in fact the joke’s central incongruity.
— There is a powerful comic disjunction between the silly wholesomeness of pajamas and the vulgarity of fuck.
— There is a surprising connection (a visual joke) made between a bagpipe’s plaid bag and pajamas. Given the octopus’s sensuous treatment of the first two instruments, we are prepared for a dirty joke involving the octopus and the bagpipe. So the surprise is not the sexual joke, which we see coming, but the manner of its deployment. A joke must surprise surprisingly. The proposition on which the joke is constructed—a bagpipe looks like an octopus in pajamas—is startlingly true, but it’s nonsensical. Just as pajamas and fuck are linguistically disjunctive, pajamas and octopi are visually (even ontologically) disjunctive.
— And yet the benighted octopus does not realize the joke. He is not being witty. This is standard dramatic irony—we know the octopus is wrong, and further we understand why he has made this error. This knowledge gives us a sense of superiority, control, and relief.
(25) “Less perfect times,” Barthelme said, “are likely to produce a great many jokes, variously inflected; thus, the Twentieth Century staggers toward its close in a blizzard of one-liners.” It seems safe to say that the late-century blizzard has been upgraded to a shit-storm: YouTube pratfalls, laugh-track zingers, wacky ringtones, digitally altered JPEGs, Twitter fights. (When singer Aimee Mann implied that Ice-T was a bad actor, Ice-T recommended via Tweet that Mann “Eat a hot bowl of Dicks,” etc.) These one-liners, though, are not the jokes of yesteryear, not the tell-me-if-you’ve-heard-this-one joke. That kind of a joke—a priest, a pilot, and a farmer, etc.—has vanished, though it lives on in irony. If I come up to you and say, “So a man walks into a bar with an octopus,” you would immediately register not one but two incongruities—there’s the octopus in the bar, certainly, but the prime incongruity is that I am, dad-like, telling you a joke. I know jokes are dumb and I’m telling one anyway—this is the perfunctory and completely unsurprising irony. Isn’t it incongruous that I would try to be funny doing something that’s expressly not funny? Get it? (But, hey, wasn’t it kind of funny anyway? Do you like me? What’s that gnawing feeling? Where’s my smartphone? I’m lonesome.) Incongruity used to reside within the joke, and now it resides within the telling. The irony has retreated from the punch line, back through the joke canal, and into my mouth, where it coats all that I say. What a joke accomplishes now is, primarily, the derision of joke-telling and the kind of person who would do it. And without concentration or thought, I can make my tone do this—I can signal to you, through intonation and expression, a nuanced system of cues, that my joke is only joking. Think about how complicated this procedure is, telling a joke while indicating my awareness of the stupidity of telling a joke. And the ease with which we can all send and receive these signals suggests how fluent we are in not-meaning.
(26) We speak of wit as sharp or dull, quick or slow. We also call wit dry, though we don’t speak of wet wit. We should, because it’s a useful term (though probably oxymoronic). We don’t speak of wet wit, because it’s the dominant mode. Wet wit is wet in the sense of being all wet (i.e., full of it), and it’s wet in the sense that it has a slick, protective coating—it’s dripping, it’s slippery with fear, nothing can stick to it. If dry wit is a kind of deadpan insinuation, wet wit is exuberant noncommitment, a celebration of procedure, style, technical merit. But really, here I’m just back to the tired old jeremiad about irony and conviction. Instead of denouncing or renouncing irony—that genie won’t go back into the bottle—I’d like to tell you what happened when I googled wet wit. What happened when I googled wet wit is that I received—wit being a dialectal form of with—a lot of very dirty hip-hop lyrics. And that was—add a short wet beat here—pretty surprisy.
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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