Saturday, September 24, 2011

Knock-Knock Jokes and Limericks

My Fellow Comedists,

More theology this weekend. I'm considering why knock-knock jokes are not funny, but limericks are. Good brother Rob, many years ago, worked on a paper with me about knock-knock jokes and whether Raskin and Attardo's script theory could account for them. I think we made some progress back then, but I now believe I have a much fuller account. But, it raises some of the questions again from last weekend.

The key to a joke is ambiguity. Jokes have two parts, a set up and a punchline. The set up provides a context in which a an ambiguous situation is presented. But this ambiguity must be hidden from the listener, one of the interpretations (what we'll call the primary interpretation) must be unthinkingly adopted and entrenched in the listener's mind. This primacy may be the result of cultural factors, common usage, or psychological priming in the wording of the set up, but the key is for the listener to cling completely to the primary interpretation. The punchline exposes the listener to a previously obscured secondary interpretation which the mind naturally tries to reconcile with the primary. But when this reconciliation process fails, the brain gets flustered using up lots of energy. Finally, when the listener "gets" the joke, the brain resigns itself to accept the secondary interpretation and completely surrender the primary one, something it is loathe to do because of the entrenchment.

Knock-knock jokes are the ones we always teach to kids because they wear their structure on the outside. The form of the knock-knock joke makes the set up and punchline form explicit. In this way, knock-knock jokes not only function as jokes, but also as tools to teach children how to tell and understand jokes. But they are not very funny. Why?

It seems that the reason is that in a knock-knock joke the set up is so brief that the entrenchment of the primary interpretation of the set up in the listener's mind is very shallow because the set up is formulaic and brief and because of familiarity with the form is expecting the switch to the secondary interpretation. Because of the expectation of the switch, the brain is less primed for the confusion surrounding the irreconciliation and so it is not seen as being as funny. Knock-knock jokes are more like puns in this way and like puns, not seen as funny.

But a limerick is funny in part because it fits a rigid form. Shouldn't knock-knock jokes also benefit from this? Is it because the form is less rigid? The punchline has no real rhythm restrictions. This openness may undercut the humorous advantage gotten from the form. Or it just may not be a funny form. The pattern of the limerick with its dissonance and resolution may have implicit humorous advantage over the staccato rhythm of the knock-knock joke.

Anyway, seems only appropriate to leave with the knock-knock joke Rob used as the central example in our paper:

Knock knock.
Who's there?
Dwayne who?
Dwayne the tub, I'm dwowning.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve