Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?

A commonly accepted truth holds that to explain a joke ruins it.

But is it true?

Humor depends upon some level of shared ground — a shared communal or cultural background that helps give the joke meaning.  Whatever theory of humor you ascribe to, or whichever theory is appropriate to a particular joke (the exposure of incongruities, aggression, assertion of superiority, masked aggression, suspended defense mechanism, surprise, etc.), it is the shared experience, assumptions, and vocabulary that together create the joke.  Humor reveals, therefore, the boundaries of a particular community.  Further, humor draws or re-draws those communal lines based on who “gets” the joke and who does not.  But whether the joke’s purpose is to more firmly draw the line between “us” and “them” or whether it seeks to bridge communal gaps and make “us” a larger set of people, explaining a joke works only when it is successful in inviting more people into the joke’s particular community.

Explaining a joke means taking a risk.  It is a way of reaching out and trying to make a connection with someone who does not “get” it, someone who is outside the domain of the joke because he or she lacks some particular shared ground with you.  The fear that explaining a joke will ruin it reveals a fear that you don’t have as much in common with someone as you may have hoped.  The failure to actually explain the joke forces you to admit it.

Let’s look at this almost axiomatic quip on the subject, paraphrased from E.B. White¹:

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog.  Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.”

Personally, I have always found this to be a silly formulation in itself, because dissecting a frog does not kill it.  Think about it.  Can you imagine more a ludicrous slapstick routine than a bunch of students trying to dissect live frogs?  What makes anyone think that the frog would stand still for it?  A frog is dead before dissection, either preserved in formaldehyde; etherized or chloroformed; or, if a beating heart or reactive nervous system is required, pithed (the process of rendering the frog “brain dead” by inserting a needle and “scrambling” the brains).  No matter how you slice it, a frog is already dead before you dissect it.

White’s formulation shifts when we think of humor as founded in shared ground.  Analyzing humor becomes like dissection only if you assume that the joke is already dead, that there is no common ground between those who “get it” and those who don’t — and no way to create it.  His statement becomes, then, not a statement about the futility of analyzing humor, but about the lack of willingness to expand one’s community — or the profound pessimism and insecurity about whether the recipient of the explanation would want to join that community:   “Few are interested.”  I’m reminded of Groucho Marx’s quip, “I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.”

But setting aside for a moment the question of whether a joke can really be a frog, let’s examine the idea of analysis and dissection.  Dissecting a frog teaches us about frog anatomy, which is something relatively “few” people might be “interested” in, true.  But actually, the most important things we learn from such a dissection are about our own anatomy and physiology, or about the impacts of environmental or pollutant factors on one of the most vulnerable partners in any ecosystem.  In other words, if we’re willing to learn from it, dissecting a frog can teach us much about ourselves and about context.

So can analyzing humor, or explaining a joke.  Sometimes, explaining the joke can even become the joke.  When I was a small child, 5 or so,  my dad used to get a big kick out of telling off-color or “dirty” jokes at the dinner table — not because he had a particularly salacious sense of humor, but because he found it hilarious listening to his youngest child pedantically explaining the jokes to her older siblings.  As a child, I loved words, definitions, ambiguities, and biology; I wanted to be a doctor, so medical, physiological, and anatomical terms were like dessert, combining all my favorite things in one.   The explanation — the analysis of the joke and the precise definitions of whatever double entendres it contained, along with the disruption of the status quo as the “little” one became the teacher — became the joke itself.  While my mother probably didn’t appreciate the content of the jokes as appropriate family dinner conversation, she could share in the absurdity of the situation.  Besides, she had been a “little” one herself.  And my sister has a great sense of humor and an incomparable thirst for explanations, while my brother became a lifelong collector of dirty jokes.  The frog not only lived, it was never dissected.

The explanation-as-joke becomes even more effective, though, when wielded by someone who uses it deliberately.  Take this extended joke from the late Patrice O’Neal, where explaining the joke itself becomes a joke that helps his audience recognize its own limitations.  The routine is called “Valuable Life,” and can be found here at Comedy Central — Patrice O’Neal.  (Unfortunately, the “embed” code wouldn’t work properly to insert the video; or maybe it is me that doesn’t work properly.)  Anyway, O’Neal opens:

You know how you can tell how pretty a white woman is?

The value?  You look at her and then you wonder how long they would look for her if she was missing.

At this opening salvo of his joke, there is laughter and applause, but as O’Neal explains what he means, the laughter changes and builds in intensity.  O’Neal works the audience, playing off their reactions, working to establish the boundaries of community before he implodes them, forcing his audience to consider their complicity in the central joke.  Addressing an African American woman, he says:

I saw you look mad, sweetie.  How long if you was missing?  How long they look for you?

He makes a face, imitating her silent response of embarrassed uncertainty.  The audience laughs as his mimicry, and it would seem that the community lines here are familiar, the recognitions of the overdetermined value of whiteness and the devaluing of those who are not, alongside male aggression and female objectification or valuation.   Then he continues, explaining the real joke, the underlying joke:

You know the deal.  I ain’t saying nothing wrong.  White women’s life is valuable. . . .  What’s his name? Joran Van der Sloot?  Right?  We find out he was a serial killer.  Man.  He kills women, he do it well. . . . What’s the girl in Aruba?

 O’Neal stutters and pretends ignorance, taking advantage, perhaps, of another stereotype; numerous audience members — noticeably women — shout out immediately:  “Natalee Holloway.”

Natalee Holloway?  Right.  But the one he just killed?  The girl he just killed in Peru?  What’s her name?  Um? [pause].

Exactly! [laughter and applause]

Look how fast you said “Natalee” . . . . Y’all said that like Family Feud. . . . Name a white girl that’s been missing for five years? “Natalee Holloway” — “Survey says . . . “

Like Richard Dawson, the host of Family Feud, O’Neal turns his back to the audience to check the “survey” results, playing out physically the joke he is explaining.  Then he spins around to the audience, the “players” in this game, and hammers home the punchline:

Name a Peruvian girl that was killed yesterday. . . .

The laughter is loud, but also tense.  Using the Family Feud motif, a game show that bases winning on a shared democratic understanding of the community of the audiences polled rather than on “correct” answers, is a brilliant touch.   Contestants win based on whether they understand the audience’s shared experience, whether they are a part of that “family;” losers, it is implied, are outsiders.  O’Neal reminds his mostly African American audience that these assumptions of the value of non-white life are not simply imposed from the outside.  He muses in a provincial and racially charged fashion about why it would be difficult for his audience to remember a “not-white” Peruvian woman’s name, whereas Van der Sloot and Holloway spurred instant recognition.  His musings focus our attention on community lines we draw in regard to nation, ethnicity, race, and gender:  he muses on the assumption that being Peruvian would equate with “not white” and therefore, somehow less valuable, not “American” and therefore, somehow less valuable or noteworthy.   He muses on the ways being Peruvian means to his audience a stereotyped outsider, in possession of  “big hair” and a “goofy” name, and he reminds his female audience that they are part of this, too, for it is women who shout out Holloway’s name.  But he doesn’t explain didactically.  Instead, he models the way he might try to remember her name, models it in language that is fairly offensive, but also uncomfortable, as he has established that most of the audience is a part of this new community.

The beginning of the joke seems to exploit clearly defined lines of “us” and “them,” insiders and outsiders.  Yet by the end of the routine, the lines of community are complicated, ambivalent, expanded and shifted — uncomfortably and significantly broadened and overlapping.   Clearly few if any of the audience members remember the name of Stephany Flores Ramirez — a name O’Neal himself does not state, perhaps a bit of self-satire that includes him in the same community with his audience, emphasizing shared ground for a moment.  Looking back on this 2010 performance today, we can enjoy (if enjoy is the right word) an even deeper level of horrified irony about this community and our own possible complicity in it, as news accounts differ even on whether the victim’s name is spelled “Stephany” or “Stephanie.”  And as a personal disclaimer, I can ruefully acknowledge that I wouldn’t remember any of these names if it hadn’t been for a news story last week:  Van der Sloot has actually filed a law suit against Flores Ramirez’s father, Ricardo Flores.  But that’s another — and deeply painful — joke.  As I may have mentioned in a previous blog entry, you need a sense of humor, ’cause life ain’t funny.

O’Neal concludes:

Don’t get mad at yourself.   I gave it to you.  You saw how fast you said Natalee Holloway.

He taunts them a little more, reminding the audience, reminding us all, that he didn’t impose the community lines, that he didn’t make any accusations.  He merely let the audience reveal themselves.  Our sense of community is not always as stable as we want to believe and the lines of “us” and “them” are often ambivalent and blurred, and O’Neal reminds us that we are often complicit in things we laugh about in others or believe that others impose on us.

He also reminds us that the frog is only dead if we kill it first.

© Sharon D. McCoy, 6 December 2011

¹[Corrected 13 June 2014. ] While this pithier version of E. B. White’s actual statement enjoys wide circulation, seeming to be a Strunk-and-White-style revision, I was apparently mistaken in remembering that I’d actually read it in his letters or some other of his public writings.  The paraphrase or revision does not seem to be his, though (if I may say so) perhaps it should have been — unless we concede that “innards” may just be too good a word to cut.  As Tracy Wuster has noted in his fine blog on this subject, White’s actual quote runs like this: “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind” (Preface, A Subtreasury of American Humor, E. B. White and Katharine S. White, eds. New York: Coward-McCann, 1941, p. xvii).

Early in this entry, I argue that explaining a joke reveals much about ourselves and about context.  We’ll take up the question of context in my next blog entry, on 26 December 2011.  In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts.


16 responses

  1. He doesn’t say that the act of dissection kills the frog (though they frequently *are* dissected live but anesthetized — the term being “vivisection”), he just says that the frog dies ot it, being died to that end.

  2. I appreciate your comment, but I’m not sure I understand. If we say that a creature “dies of” something, doesn’t it mean that that particular thing killed it? When we say, “She had cancer, and she died of it,” is there any question about what killed her?

    If White had said that analyzing humor was like performing vivisection on a frog, it would seem to me to open different possibilities as a simile that might be intriguing (and possibly disturbing, too!). As you point out, vivisection refers to experimentation on live animals. Dissection, though, generally refers to the anatomical examination of an already dead and preserved specimen for educational or investigative purposes. White says “dissecting” specifically, and equates it with analysis because both involve looking at the constituent parts of something (which vivisection often does not). And White does say that the frog “dies of it,” with the implication that analyzing a joke would also end in its death.

    What interests me, though, is that White’s analogy and its implications or conclusions are based in assumptions that are in themselves more revealing than the surface meaning.

  3. […] 20 years?” (For an astute analysis on the improbable humor of missing white women, please see Sharon McCoy’s recent post on the late comedian Patrice O’Neal.) To me, the death of Laura Palmer had never been more than a […]

  4. Hello There. I found your blog using msn. This is a really well written article. I’ll make sure to bookmark it and come back to read more of your useful info. Thanks for the post. I will definitely return.

  5. Reblogged this on Humor in America and commented:

    One of two pieces for today that discuss E.B. White’s famous discussion of jokes and frogs.

  6. […] about context. She also notes that sometimes explaining the joke, can become the joke, and that the explanation-as-joke trope can be quite effective when someone uses it deliberately. It is a rather clever jab at inter-office politics, or maybe a slice of life, or a […]

  7. […] Corner–Paul Laurence Dunbar:  Changing the Joke to Slip the Yoke“; “Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?“; or my pieces on Mark Twain, which tend to come from a multicultural […]

  8. […] Sharon McCoy and I have taken on E.B. White’s semi-famous warning that studying humor is like dissecting a […]

  9. […] McCoy, “Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?“ and my piece […]

  10. […] Tracy Wuster have both take up E.B. White’s famous saying about humor and dissecting a frog (here, here, and here).  Jeff Melton and Sharon McCoy have written on teaching […]

  11. […] and has no place in the classroom.  As I’ve written elsewhere on Humor in America (Is a Joke Really Like a Frog?), humor depends upon some level of shared ground, and because of this reveals the boundaries of a […]

  12. […] formidable commentary on HA! already. See the related posts by Sharon McCoy and Tracy Wuster: Sharon McCoy on Dissecting Jokes and Tracy Wuster on Objects of […]

  13. Wow, the irony in some one parsing a joke that works because it ignores a fact about dissection – that the frog is normally dead…but in jokes you are allowed to stretch the truth to make a point…oh shit I’ve just killed another frog.

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