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.
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.