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

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. See: Cracking the Codes of Comedy Part 1

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

This is a light bulb. It is not inherently funny.

First, I should explain that I am fortunate enough to teach at the University of Alabama (“Roll Tide!”–I am contractually obligated to say that). 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. No offense intended. Of course, this context can be adapted to any context and help to illustrate the importance of 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; 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. 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, which I will discuss below. 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 (aggressive):

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 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 interesting 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 nature, too tame and too dull. 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 program). 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 as the rider holds the light bulb as it twists into the socket–“Comic gold, Jerry!” They thus provide the same physical movement as with the ladder version, 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 shows 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, there is no humor.

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 light bulb in reference to the cow; or, “see”the light bulb in reference to cosmic nothingness. For a cow to be floating in a netherworld of cosmic nothingness, well, that’s another joke altogether.

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. Still, it is a good joke structurally. 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 worry about it, too.

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.






3 responses

  1. Reblogged this on luckpel and commented:

  2. Reblogged this on priyasethiblog and commented:
    Nice Blog…

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