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Cracking the Codes of Comedy: On the Anatomy of Jokes, Part 2

September 1, 2014

Funny Cow

Last month I explored the anatomy of jokes by looking simple joke forms, “light-bulb jokes” in particular, in the ongoing context of applying the scientific method to understanding humor. Since I named that post “Part 1,” it would seem that I needed to follow up with a “Part 2.” I am a man of my word.

When I made the implied promise to provide a second installment built off of the popularity of the fine book The Humor Code, I expected to finish the book. I have not. That’s on me and in no way a criticism of the book. Things came up.

But I have continued to think about ways to analyze humor in the classroom using simple joke forms. The light-bulb joke form still seems to me to be a rather useful joke. It is simple; it is well established in American culture; and it, in a remarkably short space–time and type–can open up a world of cultural relevance.

I discussed in the earlier post several problematic versions of the joke as they employed clear cultural biases that depended directly on choices of audience and targets. That is the approach that I have recently used in the classroom and to interesting results, to my mind.

I used the light-bulb joke as a class activity forcing students to read several versions of the a joke, picking their favorite and justifying their choice base on their understanding of humor in general and their own preferences.

light bulb

First, I should explain that I am fortunate enough to teach at the University of Alabama. This is important to the set-up for the three versions of the jokes because of my choice of the targets of the jokes: students from Auburn University. Of course, this context an be adapted to any context and help to illustrate how crucial having a target (or victim) of the light-bulb joke format, a group at whom the audience is expected to laugh. In a college context, the obvious target group will simply be the peers at the main rival university. For Alabama students, that means Auburn, clear and simple.

The students responded to the jokes online in a group discussion, so their comments were written individually but in full view of classmates and often in response to earlier comments. There were three versions of the joke described in the following way: general; more aggressive, and vulgar. I only required students to read and comment on two of the versions to allow those that wanted to avoid the vulgar version to do so with no penalty. I chose to handle to exercise online for the same reason. I simply did not want to tell the vulgar version to a captive audience. The level of vulgarity, I should add, is rather tame when placed in context with material most students encounter and enjoy. Still, that does not mean that the professor needs to tell it to the class directly. Will this be on the exam?

I will type the versions here, so those who wish to avoid the vulgar joke can do so as well. Anyone who wants to stop wasting their time, may want to stop now, too. I “wrote” all three jokes, but to my mind, I simply drew from obvious choices and did so in an effort to pick three levels of jokes, from the generic to the profane. I wanted students to deal with audience and target issues, especially as to how “laughing at” and “laughing with” contexts form crucial parts of humor as reflective of cultural tensions. However, my jokes unwittingly revealed a more complex discussion regarding joke structure. Here they are:


Version One (general):

How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Four: one to hold the light bulb and three to turn the ladder.


Version Two (more aggressive):

How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Four: one to screw in the light bulb and three to turn the cow.


Version Three (vulgar):

How many Auburn students does it take to screw in a light bulb?

None: they want it to be dark when they f**k the cow.


The results were interested and more nuanced than I had expected. That is a good sign, by the way.

Version One was voted overwhelmingly as the favorite version, which was a complete surprise to me. I figured that students would reject it for its generic and therefore dull-wittedness. Not so. It is generic, yes, but its structure is perfect. And that’s the point that they responded to, which surprised me. They enjoyed the simplicity of the joke and that it was universal (as opposed to trite). Furthermore, in a very typical niceness that is common among my students, they preferred a version that they could enjoy without being too mean to Auburn students. In short, they figured because the joke is so benign that they could laugh along with Auburn students without anyone getting their feelings hurt. I should add, however, that this collegiality would not occur during the Iron Bowl, the football game between the two schools that occurs every late November. Things get more complicated in that context. Just listen to sports-talk radio during football season in the South (any day between August and July).

Version Two was the least popular. In fact, it fell completely flat. This response actually ended up being the most instructive part of the exercise. Students rejected the joke for its faulty structure and faulty assumptions. I had written a bad joke. That is not easy for me to admit. But I blew it.

The problem is the cow (it’s always the cow).

As the joke writer, I assumed a clear context that tied cows to Auburn as a “Cow College” (short for a university with a rural location and that has an Agriculture School). I also assumed that my University of Alabama students knew of that context and had always seen it for its potential as a point of derision toward Auburn. Auburn, indeed, does have a strong agricultural history, as a land-grant institution that from its inception served agricultural interests in the state. Bama students, however, were mostly bewildered by that context. “What’s up with the cow?” Only after one student made the connection to Auburn being a “cow college,” did the students follow the rationale for the four Auburn students supposedly using a cow to screw in a light bulb. Even so, they never thought it was funny. The reference to Auburn as a “cow college” is simply too dated for them.

Fail. But the failure is more complicated. Even when students became aware of the cow connection, the visual component of the joke remains unclear. So the joke not only misfired due to the weakness of the cow reference but also because the audience could not visualize what the hell was going on in any case. In my mind, the image is clear: one student sits astride the cow, and the others pull and tug at the cow to try to get it to walk in a circle. They thus provide the same physical movement as with the ladder but their efforts are harder and more ridiculous–dumber.

The presence of the cow in this version is intentionally more aggressive and insinuating than the generic ladder of the first version because of the “cow college” reference and the fact that it show modern students still tied to a primitive solution (beast of burden) to provide electric light in a modern age. Get it? But none of that matters if the visual is not clearly set up, if the audience cannot “see” the absurdity of the cow in the scene or accept any rationale for it to be there.

Simple jokes are complicated.

Let’s pause for a moment to refer to yet another light bulb joke that implies a very sophisticated reference point for its successful punch line.


How many existentialists does it take to change a light bulb?

Two. One to change the light bulb and one to observe how the light bulb symbolizes an incandescent beacon of subjectivity in a netherworld of Cosmic Nothingness.

I include this here to point out how important common reference points are to successful humor. Although, this joke requires some audience awareness of “cosmic nothingness,” the joke itself is no different than the seemingly more simple “cow” reference in my version above. The same rules apply. You have to “see” the cow.

The third version had very little support. Some students pointed out something that I had hoped for–that provocative language and vulgarity do have some place in our cultural relationship to simple jokes. Unlike version two, the vulgar version is structurally sound. It is clear and concise, and the profanity as well as the reference to bestiality, carry the power of surprise and conviction. Yes, it is a very aggressive, mean-spirited, and even vicious attack upon the victims of the joke. It is a good joke, in that sense. But it is not a very funny one the whole once the shock value fades. It is too mean, too clearly desirous of being smugly mean than being cleverly funny. The vulgarity is, as a result, more gratuitous than humorous. I think, also, that students worry about the cow. I am all for that.

Light bulb jokes are useful. Student responses to the ones I have employed in class should help us all get ready to move into material that is more delicate as the semester progresses. Being able to see the nuances of social and historical tensions even within the simplest jokes should allow us to examine the structure of a wider variety of jokes and help us assess the complex nature of the codes of comedy. And cows.





Adult Humor in Unexpected Places: Happy Birthday, LBJ and Pee Wee Herman!

August 27, 2014

Tracy Wuster

“When I was a kid my parents moved a lot, but I always found them.” 
― Rodney Dangerfield

A summer dominated by moving–with a baby–has ended.  There is nothing funny about moving when you have a young child, except for the unintentional.  Like this morning, when I banged my knee on the doorframe when stepping over the baby gate.  My valiant efforts to squelch the swear words that are the only tonic at such times had my little girl laughing, her face covered with carrots, her diaper filled with the same, and my knee slightly bleeding and my eyes watering–first from pain and then laughter.

Which is all to say that I have been largely absent from “Humor in America” this summer because I haven’t had time to think about humor, much less write about it, much less write anything intelligent.  And I don’t have much to say now, but I feel like it would be a good thing to get something up and out there.

And then I noticed that today was the birthday of two illustrious humorists who somehow fit together in my mind (and, to be clear, my mind may be affected by the fact that the little one decided that sleep was not for her, except for 45 minute to the occasional, blessed three-hour stretch).  Here they are:

LBJ lyndon baines johnson humor pee wee herman



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Cole Porter and the Gods of Gossamer

August 21, 2014

There’s no love song finer

But how strange

The change

From major to minor

Ev’ry time we say goodbye.


The strange change from major to minor runs throughout Cole Porter’s life and work. Harmonically, it was the signature of his sound. Personally, he was the toast of town; even in a wheelchair, having suffered a crippling riding accident that would eventually cost him his right leg; or in shadow, his homosexuality not proper upper-set cocktail conversation.

Cole Porter was born into the privilege and constraints of middle-western wealth in Peru, Indiana in 1891. His overbearing grandfather, J.O. Cole’s, reach dominated most aspects of Porter’s early life, even giving the boy the maternal family surname as his first, lest he be somehow denied the privilege of being a Cole.

He showed early promise as a violinist and pianist and began composing songs as young as ten, although he was a mischievous child. At the age of eight, Cole was kicked out of the local movie theater for playing comical music on the house piano during a sad part in a film. During summers on Lake Maxinkuckee, he and his friends would climb aboard the passing steamship in their bathing suits and dive off the back before it moved on. While on board, Cole headed straight toward the piano, wet suit and all, and pounded away on the keys, keeping time with the rhythm of the engine, until the ship captain chased him away and Cole made his escape somersaulting into the clear lake waters beyond the captain’s reach.

There’s something wild about you child

That’s so contagious

Let’s be outrageous

Let’s misbehave



His mischievousness would remain most of his life. His lyrics were littered with suggestive imagery and double entendre, which often put the songwriter at odds with censors of the day who took objection to lines such as “I’d love to make a tour of you,” especially “the south of you,” from the Silk Stockings number “All of You” (Ironically, the censors missed the most obscene thing about “All of You” – the song, about gaining “complete control” of a woman, is sung by a theatrical agent!) as well as entire compositions such as “Love For Sale.”

Anything didn’t always go.

Times have changed

And we’ve often rewound the clock

Since the Puritans got a shock

When they landed on Plymouth Rock.

If today

Any shock they should try to stem,

‘Stead of landing on Plymouth Rock,

Plymouth Rock would land on them

Good authors too who once knew better words

Now only use four-letter words

Writing prose,

Anything goes.

At Yale he studied English and music and composed several football fight songs. His natural charm and musicality made him a social success among the children of the eastern elite, even as he defied the conventional conservatism of the Ivy League (“[He] wore salmon-colored ties and had his nails done,” one classmate observed). His grandfather never considered music a worthwhile pursuit and insisted Cole attend Harvard Law School where he earned the equivalent of straight D’s his first year. The dean of the law school encouraged Cole to transfer to the Harvard School of Music, against his grandfather’s wishes.

Defying his grandfather by pursuing his passion for music would (almost) cost him his fortune before it would gain him another. His grandfather cut Cole completely from his will; however, Cole’s mother split her inheritance with her son, each of them ending up with two million dollars.

People always say that so much money spoils one’s life. But it didn’t spoil mine; it simply made it wonderful.

Porter lived a life of luxury, but he was a disciplined writer. He never waited for inspiration; he wrote constantly, and surrounded himself with staff paper and pencils, rhyming dictionaries, thesauruses, and other tools of the trade. Being left handed, he found it difficult to pencil in the notes of his compositions, so he would turn the staff paper on its side and write out the notes upward from the bottom of the page to the top, rather than left to right. No wonder then his best songs seem to take flight as they unfold, like bubbles in a glass of champagne. But there was another element that would permeate beyond the surface sheen of his milieu: hopeless longing.

It was just one of those nights,

Just one of those fabulous flights,

A trip to the moon on gossamer wings,

Just one of those things.

Porter found himself in Paris after World War I, when it seemed every young, modernist genius of the time – Picasso, Hemingway, Joyce – descended upon the City of Light like moths to a flame. And it was in Paris where he would meet his wife, Linda Lee Thomas, an American socialite eight years the songwriter’s senior. Read more…

What’s With College Sports Nicknames?

August 17, 2014

What’s With College Sports Nicknames?

The controversy over the Washington franchise of the National Football League using “Redskins” as its moniker has prompted me to think about college nicknames and how they are used. Of course, Florida State University uses “Seminoles” for its sports, but with the permission of the actual Seminole Indians in southern Florida. However, the Eastern Michigan University team changed its name from the Hurons to the Eagles in 1991 in order to comply with a suggestion that the name “Huron” contributed to Native American stereotyping. It is interesting that EMU chose “Eagles” over another bird. They could have easily been called the “Emus” and it would have been far more a propos than aligning with the plethora of schools that use various species of eagles for their mascots.
Some schools choose animal species that do not exist. My alma mater, Oakland University changed its moniker from the Pioneers to the Golden Grizzlies when it stepped up to Division I in 1998. The OU logo is a fearsome bear (of some sort). I wonder how many OU students are aware that their mascot is a non-existent mammal?
Two types of mascots have caused me to wonder what the founders were thinking. Both the Georgia Bulldogs and University of South Florida Bulls provide fodder for linguists. University of Georgia coined their athletic teams the Bulldogs in 1920, about the same time as women received the vote. Although women had been enrolled at the school since 1903, there was probably no thought that women would ever compete in athletics, so they did not have to worry about what they might call the women’s teams. Needless to say, the women prefer “Lady Bulldogs,” over “Bitches.” However, one cannot help to consider the latter as an inappropriate, but applicable substitute. To my knowledge, there has been no attempt to change UGA’s mascot due to stereotypes or considerations of courtesy.
The story behind the USF Bulls is probably more egregious. In 1962, the university adapted the nickname of the Golden Brahmans. Like golden grizzlies, golden Brahmans do not exist—at least not in nature. However, apparently golden Brahmans is a bit of an unwieldy nickname. By the late ‘80s they became the “Bulls.” Also, by the late ‘80s they had women’s sports. So what do the women’s teams call themselves. As “bull” specifically refers to the sex of certain animals, “Lady Bulls” is a bit of an oxymoron, but “Cows” is inappropriate. Like UGA, USF has not considered altering the names of its teams out of consideration for the women athletes.
I have always enjoyed the nicknames of various schools whose founders had both a sense of creativity and humor. Texas Christian University chose “Horned Frogs” as their moniker. The women’s teams call themselves the “Lady Frogs.” Now I don’t know about all horned frogs, but the African Horned Frog is hermaphroditic. So Horned Frogs is appropriate to the men, women, and transgendered athletes at the school. It and the following moniker may be the most appropriate mascots in the NCAA.
As well, Evergreen State College in Washington is known as the “Geoducks” (that’s pronounced Goo-y-Ducks). Oh, and it is not a waterfowl—it’s a mollusk. The original motto of the school was “Let it all hang out.” And since the geoduck cannot be contained within its shell, the mascot was deemed appropriate, but it is unclear to what it is appropriate. Since then, ESC teams have been happy as clams. Like the African Horned Frog, the geoduck is hermaphroditic, so it is appropriate to all athletes. An explanation of the naming of the Geoduck as the ESC mascot is at
Here’s a little game. Match the real college or university to an appropriate nickname. For instance: Casper College matches Ghosts. The answers follow the next paragraph:
Alma College All Stars
Aurora College Brides (and Grooms)
Bluffton College Gamblers
Calvin College Ghosts
Casper College Hobbeses
Converse College Jokers
Embry-Riddle University Lures
Fisher Junior College Northern Lights
High Point University Pinnacles
Rice University Road Kill
Tulane University Soul Sisters
Commerce entered the name game in about 1965 when Gatorade was invented at the University of Florida. Of course, the drink was named for the team nickname of the Gators. Its success as an electrolyte replacement product is well-documented. The need for such a product is especially important in southern states like Florida. But one wonders, if the drink had been invented at Florida State University, would it have been called “Seminole Fluids?”
If you are actually reading this far, the answers to the quiz are:
Alma Soul Sisters (let the men fend for themselves), Aurora Northern Lights, Bluffton Gamblers, Calvin Hobeses, Casper Ghosts, Converse All Stars, Embry-Riddle Jokers, Fisher Lures, High Point Pinnacles, Rice Brides, and Tulane Road Kill).

What will your verse be?

August 14, 2014

Today’s humorous poetry post is pre-empted to bring you a scene from the film, “Dead Poet’s Society.”

Robin Williams 1951 - 2014

Robin Williams   1951 – 2014


Calling All Social Critics and Comedians!

July 31, 2014

As I finalize my selections for a course on American Counterculture from the 1960s to present day, I slyly grin at the allotment of time dedicated to the late great cultural rebel George Carlin. The truth is, I miss him. I never had the opportunity to meet him or see a live show, but I’ve watched and read so much on, about, for, and from Carlin that he feels like an ostracized yet beloved great uncle. As with Lenny Bruce before him, Carlin’s work demonstrated the honesty, passion, and brilliance of his predecessor. A look at a compilation of The Best of George Carlin proves this:

From the 1970s until his death in 2008, the self-proclaimed lover of language elucidated his countercultural propensities in albums such as FM & AM and Class Clown – the latter containing what would later become know as his infamous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” shtick. His jokes pertaining to religion, politics, drugs, war, government, human interactions, and relationships were legendary and established Carlin’s unapologetic career in comedy. Through humor, he begged audiences in a 2004 CNN interview to “first of all, question everything you read or hear or see or are told . . . [a]nd try to see the world for what it actually is, as opposed to what someone or some company or some organization or some government is trying to represent it as, or present it as, however they’ve mislabeled it or dressed it up or told you.”

As social critic and thinker, Carlin used humor as his vehicle – he did not mean for audiences to be purely and purposelessly entertained. I use Carlin to introduce students to humor as counterculture but also to show how to clearly support claims with evidence, how an informed participant is better than an unenlightened observer, speaker, and writer. His genius – as well as his comedic charisma – will hopefully illustrate the power of passion and awareness in a course dedicated to both.

Noticeably absent from my selections are women who were/are social critics and comedians. After watching Women Who Kill, a 2013 Showtime special highlighting Amy Schumer, Rachel Feinstein, Nikki Glaser, and Marina Franklin, I couldn’t help but wonder if what was presented in this 59 minute show was the best I could find. I patiently watched each comedian present her ideas on dating, abuse, children, weight, and fashion with clever language and verbal trickery, but finished the show having laughed, felt, or thought very little.

I realize the pressure of the ‘Carlin comparison’ – no human, male or female, can match the genius of George, but the sustenance from his shows, and the shows of the likes of Bruce and Hicks, seems to be deficient in modern comedy, especially that showcased by females. Many comedians use a new sensationalism – similarly to what the modern world now relies on for entertainment purposes – which seems more grating than gift. In an article titled “Laughter the Best Medicine: Muslim Comedians and Social Criticism in Post-9/11 America,” author Amarnath Amarasingam explores the role of Muslim standup comedians who challenge misperceptions about culture, religion, and relationships and could do well to be defined under Gramsci’s classification of “organic intellectuals” (467). Comedians such as Azhar Usman and Maz Jobrani challenge societal expectations and push the limitations of previously held thought. Through discussions of social criticism, their humor is welcomed among the drivel so disliked by many, including Carlin himself.

© 2014 Tara Friedman

Joker Poe, Part 4: The Critic’s Laughter

July 28, 2014

In this series thus far, I have discussed the ways in which Edgar Allan Poe is perhaps best viewed as a literary prankster or practical joker. In Part 1, I argued that the great theorist of “Diddling Considered as One of the Exact Sciences” was also, in his various works, a master “diddler,” frequently putting one over on his readers. In Part 2, I discussed the “poet as prankster,” suggesting that even Poe’s poetry is not always as serious as it seems, while examining one poem (“O Tempora! O Mores!”) that was itself composed and presented as part of an elaborate practical joke. In Part 3, I argued that many of Poe’s most well-known stories, which are usually read as Gothic horror or mystery, might be considered as humorous, frequently functioning as comical send-ups of popular fictions of the era. In this entry, I want to consider another genre of writing for which Poe was quite famous in his own time: literary criticism. Not surprisingly, Poe’s literary criticism bears the mark of the prankster’s spirit, as his book reviews and essays are often filled with sardonic humor.

twofisted_poe As a literary critic and book reviewer for a number of magazines, Poe developed an infamous reputation as a “tomahawk-man,” a harsh critic who, in the words of his great contemporary James Russell Lowell, “seems sometimes to mistake his phial of prussic-acid for his inkstand.” Lowell’s own humorous aside does not detract from his judgement, stated one line earlier, of Poe as “the most discriminating, philosophical, and fearless critic upon imaginative works who has written in America.” Perhaps because of this discriminating, philosophical fearlessness, Poe-the-critic was loathe to suffer fools gladly or even at all, and some of his best known zingers have come at the expense of his fellow poets and fiction writers.

For example, in an 1843 review of William Ellery Channing’s Our Amateur Poets, Poe writes: “His book contains about sixty-three things, which he calls poems, and which he no doubt seriously supposes so to be. They are full of all kinds of mistakes, of which the most important is that of their having been printed at all.” A paragraph later he calls for the author to be hanged, but—out of deference to his good name (Channing Sr. having been a “great essayist”)—Poe urges that the hangman “observe every species of decorum, and be especially careful of his feelings, and hang him gingerly and gracefully, with a silken cord.” Presumably, the remainder of the book review represents that figurative execution.

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