Tag Archives: The Humor Code

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.





Cracking the Codes of Comedy: On the Anatomy of Jokes, Part 1

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Why did the chicken cross the road?

What is your favorite joke? Do you know why it works for you?

In answering the first question, many people have clear, definite jokes in mind; others may have to run through their memories to choose from several. In either case, most humans enjoy the prospect of having “favorite” jokes, and sharing them. They are far less interested in considering WHY the joke works for them, that tougher second question from above. “Why? Because it’s funny as hell. That’s why.” There could follow a series of insults to the questioner for ruining the whole idea of a joke. Hearing jokes can be funny; talking about why they are funny is not. So it follows that teaching humor, though a very good gig by all teaching measures, is still rather a risky proposition on the whole.

The Humor Code

The Humor Code

The study of humor has earned quite a bit of attention in scientific circles in recent years, moving well beyond the more standard interests in the humanities (my comfort zone). Most recently, and most successfully in the marketplace, is the book The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny (2014) by Peter McGraw and Joel Warner. The book has received quite a bit of publicity and attention from media. For a good overview of the topic and links to some of this popular attention (For example, see: Slate article with links on Studying Humor). It sets up the basic questions that start this post and applies both a journalistic and scientific methodology to seek answers. It is a good read, and often very funny in its own right.

Peter McGraw has been building the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado–Boulder, and has aggressively applied a scientific method to the study of humor. His approach, though not the first, has gained some worthy attention. Teaming up with a journalist is a stroke of geniuses (or common sense, really). Joel Warner helps provide an appealing voice for the study and makes sure the writing succeeds where so many academic books fail: it is readable. The Humor Code should appeal to teachers of humor on the whole. McGraw and Warner frame their study in terms of a romantic quest for scientific understanding of the seemingly inexplicable nature of laughter. It is a worldwide search for the keys to understanding the human sense of humor, that amorphous but essential part of the human experience. That is simply a great idea for the framing of a book, and it is hard not to hate them both for coming up with it.

Let’s start with the book’s epigraph from E.B. White. It reads:

“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.”

Frogs and Language

Frogs and Language

McGraw and Warner follow that quote with: “Let’s kill some frogs.” I should add here that no frogs will die in the process of reading this post. The E.B. White quote has earned 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 Humor.

This beginning to the book hits home with any teacher of humor because it captures the dilemma exactly. E. B. White’s comment gets plenty of play, as it should. It is a compelling statement that rings true but is a bit disingenuous with the facts in creating its metaphor of killing frogs. White asserts that any dissecting of a joke like a frog kills either party. Who needs dead frogs or dead jokes? Nobody.

My memory of 8th-grade biology is foggy, but I seem to recall that the frogs were quite dead before any of us started hacking away at them. Perhaps I am being defensive, but I don’t want to be accused of killing frogs anymore than of killing jokes. I have spent a good, and pleasant, portion of my adult life dissecting jokes and asking others to do so as well. I think they (both the jokes and the students) survive the process. The “thing” does not die on the table, and the process of dissection does not require a scientific mind; rather, it demands only a curious one. A scientific method, however, can be helpful with funding. But I digress.

Frog with Glasses

Trying to get students (or anyone) to begin examining the components of jokes–their structure, form and content; their cultural and historical context; their artistic qualities of language and nonverbal communication–can be worthwhile. It also forces those who try to answer the question the opportunity to assess their own preferences and personality traits that may push them to like one type of joke over another. This process could get rather personal rather fast. And, of course, it is political. Let’s take a moment to look at a few examples of a popular and persistent joke: the Light Bulb joke. It is simple framework with seemingly limitless permutations. Here is a link to a website out of England that claims to be a repository for the best “Light Bulb” jokes. http://www.lightbulbjokes.com/directory/t.html. I know it is English because there are so many misspellings (too many u’s and not enough z’s). I also know it has English authors because the site chooses the following as its favorite light bulb joke:

     Q: How many Irishmen does it take to change a light bulb?

     A: Five, one to hold the light bulb and the other four to turn the ladder round and round!

That seems a rather odd choice if based solely on the humor implicit in it. That is rather political, eh? It certainly has a social and historical context that must be open to scrutiny, as in any classroom examining humor. This seems to be one of the most popular and oldest versions of this joke, wherein the premise of the punchline depends on stereotypical assumptions and underlying social tensions. Simple jokes have complex backstories. This joke as presented above will not play very well in most American settings, but that is not to say that there are not American versions filled with similar tension and bigotry. The number in the answer is somewhat off-point and generic (presumably, the more people involved in the process, the dumber they are); what matters is that it affirms an assumption from the audience that agrees–or is simply willing to laugh about–the supposed stupidity of the targeted group. Let’s back off a bit and choose a version of the same joke above but directed at a more universally disliked group. This version has a more benign historical context:

     Q: How many tourists does it take to change a light bulb?

     A: Six: One to hold the bulb and five to ask for directions.

Tourists are sooooo stupid. Right? Well, yes. Well, no. But the joke can implicate almost anyone who has been in a unfamiliar place, and the characteristic of a tourist being uniformed and dependent on others and maps for their mobility (unlike Irish above) is not definitive of any single person’s identity. Moreover, the condition of being a tourist is temporary so that the insult is much more benign. Yet the form of the joke is the same. The answer implies the same status: stupid. And it is funny. Here is another version with a slightly skewed punchline that offers a more complex context for consideration.

     Q: “How many feminists does it take to screw in a light bulb?”

     A: “You know that’s not very funny.”

This joke has a clear political target: humorless feminists who are so politically minded in response to centuries of oppression that they refuse to accept a joke that may mock them, This version of the joke seems to be stopped cold via the interrupting voice that challenges the joke’s set-up. That voice provides the joke, a slight twist on the more standard punchline for light bulb jokes more typically provided by the questioner. This is the version of the joke as I remember if when I first heard in in the early 1990s. To my surprise, I found that the “lightbulbjokes” site provides twenty-nine answers to this set-up, the last of which is most closely aligned with my version. The answers on the whole carry a not-too-subtle backlash anger, more along the reactionary “feminazi” attacks popularized among the listeners of the idiotic but sometimes funny Rush Limbaugh in the 1990s. They, it seems, remain popular, and many of them are funny, it seems to me.

I still like the version quoted above, a version I first heard from students majoring in Women’s Studies. That statement is intended to give me some street cred for defining this joke as allowable and even funny in the version above. Others may disagree, and students need to explore the variations of opinion.

Why do I think my version is funny and benign but see most of the others as harboring much more anger? Am I right? Am I wrong? Well, how did I get here? The same questions apply to all jokes in one way or another, and such questions are getting some big media attention and that is a good thing for humor and anyone who likes to laugh and think about why.

What is your favorite joke? What makes it funny? What does it say about our culture? What does it say about you? Why a frog?

In case you are interested, here is how to change a lightbulb:

How to change a light bulb