Explaining a joke usually leads to deafening silence, groans and boos. As author of Charlotte’s Web, Elwyn Brooks White, puts it:
“Humour 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.”
It’s clear to everyone that dissecting jokes is a serious no-no, but I’ve always wondered what makes a good joke? Why do we laugh at The Simpsons, Facebook memes and Twitter gags?
Ken Jennings took on this challenge of answering why we find these things hilarious by first addressing the evolution of humour. And it’s safe to say, he made it funny.
Planet Funny: How Comedy Took over Our Culture
He begins by shattering my belief that things have always been funny:
“Everything is getting funnier… If you assume that all modern institutions has always been as joke filled as they are now, you’re part of the problem—and probably part of the rising generation.”
In caveman times, strength was prioritised for survival. In societies that followed, efficiency was the future. After the Industrial Revolution, innovation and ideas became the focus. Just 50 years ago, scientific minds were the most celebrated. Today, funniness is the prized commodity. Sports got funny when cheeky, wisecracking personalities like Muhammad Ali entered the fray. Comic books in decline came back with the antics of the Human Torch from The Fantastic Four, and even food caught the laughter bug by becoming more theatrical.
I’ve always thought that the insatiable hunger for humour in my generation was the norm because of how entrenched it is in today’s society (Also, caused by a lack of knowledge on humour history). Moreover, I’ve noticed people who do humour well, tend to get far in life. Funny classmates become popular, funny colleagues get promoted, funny information spreads faster, and so on.
Sure, there were jokes that have gone horribly wrong and I would never want to be caught in it. Cue people who have lost jobs from viral tweets.
But mostly, Jennings says, it’s still a good time to be in the business of being funny. So… what makes a good joke?
First, he establishes that a joke used to be in the form of stories :
“At its most formalized level, a joke is a little folktale—a one-act play with characters and a beginning, middle and end.”
Here’s an example from his brother:
“A grasshopper walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Wow, funny you should come in here. We have a drink named after you!” The grasshopper says, “You have a drink called Stanley?”
However, books with such a collection of jokes tend to be labeled as ‘lame’ over time. They use conventions that are no longer relevant in today’s context. Also, hindered by our constant craving for novelty, these old jokes are unable to bring huge laughs.
Things have changed vastly. Popular comedy talk shows now use first-person anecdotes or situational humour to get laughs. Think Amy Schumer, Conan O’ Brien, and jokes like this:
“My photographer friend takes pictures of things that have been abandoned. He did a really great job of taking Christmas portraits of me and my kids.”
– Julie Drake
It is still incredibly difficult to properly define a joke, and some old jokes are still relevant. But one thing we can be sure of—it’s constantly changing.
“Comedy’s like an art form; it evolves over time. Yesterday’s joke influence today’s and if today’s seem funnier, it’s largely because we stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Jam-packed with pop culture references, analysis on humour trends, and random jokes, this book certainly didn’t fail to tickle my funny bone.