“A bus filled with members of a carnival sideshow was found to have crashed through the guard rail, killing all occupants inside. Police are describing it as freak accident.”
That is a bad joke, but a funny one. Bad jokes—or “witty stories”—differ from the humorous story, as Mark Twain tells us. “The humorous story may be spun out to great length, and may wander around as much as it pleases, and arrive nowhere in particular; but the comic and witty stories must be brief and end with a point. The humorous story bubbles gently along, the others burst.”
Anybody can tell a bad joke. But not all can master the higher forms of humor.
The humorous story is strictly a work of art—high and delicate art—and only an artist can tell it; but no art is necessary in telling the comic and the witty story; anybody can do it. The art of telling a humorous story—understand, I mean by word of mouth, not print—was created in America, and has remained at home.
The humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal the fact that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it; but the teller of the comic story tells you beforehand that it is one of the funniest things he has ever heard, then tells it with eager delight, and is the first person to laugh when he gets through. And sometimes, if he has had good success, he is so glad and happy that he will repeat the “nub” of it and glance around from face to face, collecting applause, and then repeat it again. It is a pathetic thing to see.
This is true. But there is still delight to be had in the bad joke, a delight that is chiefly in the reading of it and not in hearing it. Seeing the bad joke in print forces it to stand on its own, it removes all artifices and personality of the joke teller. Reading it allows you to enjoy it without having to admit it to others.
Patrick O’Brian was a master of the humorous story—few besides O’Brian can build up to a punchline that lasts across separate novels. But had a tremendous facility with bad jokes, too. Which type did he prefer? Its telling that he allows his co-protagonist “Lucky” Jack Aubrey to enjoy bad jokes above all else. In one memorable instance, O’Brian lets Stephen Maturin quip, in answer to a question of a shipmate who wonders why the second dog watch is short in duration, “Because it is cur tailed.” Hilarious!
As is typical of bad jokes, Maturin’s witticism drops like a stone into a bottomless pit. The joke has provided amusement—as Twain foretold—for himself alone. His shipmates respond only with blank or suspicious stares.
However, we can now see that what makes a bad joke good is word play, particularly double meaning in the punchline. Good bad jokes are thus different from groaners; for example like this, “What did one snowman say to other snowman? Smells like carrots.”
My all-time favorite: “These two cannibals are eating a clown and one says to the other, ‘Does this taste funny to you?'” I have told this joke in all corners of the world and it has never ceased to fail to produce a laugh, no, not even a smile. The uniform lack of response only serves to confirm the joke’s sublimity.
Any further examples you might suggest?