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Meta-Jokes, Part 1: With All Due Respect to Ted Cohen

posted Jun 30, 2016, 3:06 PM by Max Bialek   [ updated Jun 30, 2016, 7:01 PM ]

My first encounter with the philosophy of humor was Ted Cohen's Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. (If you haven't read it, get on it! It's a good way to spend a day.) The central idea of Jokes is that "jokes are conditional", in the sense that getting a joke depends on having some background knowledge. Getting an ethnic joke is conditional on being familiar with the relevant stereotypes. Jokes about particular professions—doctor jokes, lawyer jokes, physics, math, philosophy jokes, and so on—are conditional on the audience being familiar with (often archaic) features of the relevant profession.

When the telling of a joke is well received, we can be confident that the audience possesses the requisite background knowledge. And, presumably, the joke teller is in possession of the same background knowledge. What interests Cohen is that the background knowledge is shared between the joke's audience and its teller, and so joking involves a “special kind of intimacy”. What interests me is how some jokes are conditional on having knowledge of jokes and joke-telling.

Consider shaggy dog stories: A shaggy dog story is, roughly, a joke that has an especially long setup and an especially low key punchline. Here's the prototypical shaggy dog story (or, at least, my version of it, which differs from Cohen's in minor ways):

There once was a boy whose dog was very shaggy. The boy entered the dog into the dog show in his town since the dog was so shaggy, and it won the show's prize for being the shaggiest dog. He then entered his dog into the show at the county fair, where again it won the prize for shaggiest dog. Having won the prize for shaggiest dog at the county fair, the boy's dog was eligible to be entered into the state fair. There were a lot of very shaggy dogs at the state fair, but still, the boy's dog won the prize for being the shaggiest dog there. The boy continued to enter his dog into shows at various fairs and competitions, and the dog continued to win prizes for being the shaggiest of the competing shaggy dogs. One day there was a dog show with a lot of very shaggy dogs in competition, and the boy's dog didn't win the prize for being the shaggiest dog. The boy's parents rushed to his side, worried that their son would be heart broken about having lost for the very first time. They asked him if he is okay, and the boy shrugged in reply: "I guess he's not so shaggy after all."

In reaction to shaggy dog stories, Cohen remarks that

"An oddity of these stories, these joke-like stories that go nowhere, is that their presumption upon the audience is simultaneously enormous and negligible. It is enormous in that it presupposes an acquaintance with joke-telling in general, and an appreciation of how jokes work; but it is negligible in that it presupposes nothing else, no specific information, no particular dispositions to feel one way or another. I suppose they are conditional jokes (or joke-like), but the condition they presuppose is just joking itself." (Cohen 1999, p. 9)

This is the defining feature of meta-jokes. They are jokes about joking. Their reception depends on having knowledge of the nature of jokes themselves. And that is the precisely the body of knowledge we want to tap into if we are interested in the philosophy of humor and jokes.

The conditionality of jokes means that a well received meta-joke should be indicative of some feature(s) of jokes. The aim of this series of posts will be to explore the potential to learn about jokes and joking through meta-jokes. There will be complications to consider—e.g., a joke might be well received because of shared false beliefs instead of shared background knowledge—but mostly there'll be a lot of meta-jokes to think about. In anticipation of the next post, here's three meta-jokes all with the same setup.

A man is visiting his friend for a week, and one night the friend announces that they will be having dinner at a local monastery. The friend explains that the monks there have taken a vow of silence, but once a year they are allowed to break that vow in order to tell jokes. To avoid being too indulgent, each joke is told only by announcing a number that it has been assigned. The visitor agrees to go, thinking that this would be an interesting custom to observe.

Dinner goes by quietly at the monastery. As the last few plates are being taken from the table, one of the monks stands up and declares with great satisfaction: “39!” All the monks laugh, and the one who just told the joke sits back down. Another monk stands a minute later and says: “15!” Again, all the monks laugh and the joke-teller takes his seat. Things continue this way for about twenty minutes, and eventually the visitor turns to his friend and asks if it would be okay for him to get up and tell a joke. The friend doesn’t see why not, so at the next opportunity the visitor gets up and announces: “27!”

[It is at this point that the endings diverge.]

[Ending 1]

None of the monks laugh, and the distraught visitor sinks into his seat. Turning to his friend he asks, “What did I do wrong?”

The friend shakes his head, and says, “They don’t tell Pope jokes anymore.”

[Ending 2]

None of the monks laugh, and the distraught visitor sinks into his seat. Turning to his friend he asks, “What did I do wrong?”

The friend shrugs his shoulders, and replies, “Some people just can’t tell a joke.”

[Ending 3]

All the monks chuckle, except for one way down at the end of the table who is in tears from laughing so hard. As the hysterical monk is falling out of his chair, the visitor is sitting back down into his own. He turns to his friend and asks, “The joke seems to have gone over pretty well, but what is with the guy at the end of the table?”

The friend shrugs, and says, “Maybe he’s never heard it before.”

In principle, you could also end the joke as a shaggy dog story at "Dinner goes by quietly at the monastery.".