Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Funniest or Stupidist Joke Ever

I was reading a humor book with all kinds of jokes when one hit my funny bone:

A man goes to a costume party with a woman draped over his shoulders and says he’s come as a tortoise. “Who’s that on your back?” asks the host. “That?” he says, “That’s Susan.”

I visualized the situation and the dialog and laughed so hard I had tears in my eyes. The absurdity of it just blew me away. Even now I am chuckling as I read it again.

So I read the joke to my wife. “That’s more stupid than funny,” she said without smiling. What? How could she not appreciate the surreal insanity of the joke?

I read the joke again and realized I had misunderstood it. The last sentence of the joke actually reads, “That?” he says, “That’s Michelle.”

It always did say Michelle, and that’s what I read the first time, but I did not connect the name to a terrible acoustic pun, “That’s my shell.” In my mind, “Michelle” could have been “Susan” and the joke would have been just as hilarious and that’s how I read it. My wife was right, the joke, as intended, was stupid, not the least bit funny. She had ruined it for me!

But if I ignored the acoustic pun and read the joke again as I had originally, it again became so funny I could not stop laughing for several minutes.

What was going on here? If the last line had been:

“That’s my dog.” Not funny.
“That’s just some woman.” Not funny.
“I don’t know.” Slightly funny.
“That’s my wife.” Slightly funny.
“That’s a corpse.” Not funny.
“That’s a Martian.” Not funny.
“That’s my collar.” Not funny.

What is it about “That’s Michelle/Susan” that makes the joke so funny the way I read it?

I was set up for a tortoise joke, and in the special syntax of jokes, you expect the punch line to involve some distinctive feature of tortoises, such as the fact that they move very slowly, or are hemispherical in shape.


That the man had a woman draped over his shoulders is already slightly funny. To say he came as a tortoise is also slightly funny, but the two ideas don’t add up to anything. If the joke had ended there, it would be such a total nonsequitur that I might have thought it was a misprint.

But when the host inquires about the woman on his back, I am led to imagine that there is a mystery to be solved about the costume. The host is thinking, “Okay, tortoise, if you say so, but what part is played by that woman on your back?”

The man answers with a surprised question, “That?”

That’s a nice bit of joke-writing there, because why would he be surprised by the question? If the woman really is part of the tortoise costume, he should be eager to explain the connection, but instead, he acts as if he had forgotten he had a woman on his back. So as the joke reader, I am thinking, well, maybe there is some other explanation here. I have been misdirected.

But the punch line, “That’s Michelle,” implies that she is always there. “Oh her, that’s just Michelle. Don’t pay any attention to her.”

It’s as if the guy is completely accustomed to having Michelle draped over his shoulders. I imagine Michelle being rather slim and drape-able, dressed in a tight, shiny party dress, lying limply over his shoulders with her long hair, arms, and legs dangling toward the floor.

But given the setup about a costume party and him presenting himself as a tortoise, with the forgotten Michelle on his back, the punch line is hilarious because of the juxtaposition of the two speakers’ assumptions.

The host is inquiring about the costume, but the guy answers as if he heard the question as an inquiry about the girl, which he answers matter-of-factly, as if it were a reasonable answer to a simple question.

It is that sudden shift in context that made me laugh. Even after analyzing this to death, I am still chuckling now.

Here’s the same joke in a different form:

A man walks into a bar with a beautiful multicolored bird on his head. “Wow,” the bartender says, “Where did you get that?” “I got him in France,” the bird answers, “They have millions of them there.”

Again the humor arises from the juxtaposition of the two speaker’s differing points of view, each oblivious to the others’. But this version is less funny because the differing contexts of understanding are confounded with the violation of expectation by having a talking bird, and that diminishes the effect of the context shift.

In the original joke, the opposition of the two speakers’ contexts is pure funny. Why, exactly, I still don’t know.

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