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In Praise Of Bad Jokes

“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?

34 thoughts on “In Praise Of Bad Jokes Leave a comment

  1. I think your “Lucky” Jack Aubrey bad joke is a pun. A very good one.

    The pun, or paronomasia, is a form of word play which suggests two or more meanings, by exploiting multiple meanings of words, or of similar-sounding words, for an intended humorous or rhetorical effect.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pun

    Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, but when they lit a fire
    in the craft it sank proving once and for all that

    YOU CAN’T HAVE YOUR KAYAK AND HEAT IT, TOO.
    http://www.punpunpun.com/21842.html

  2. I’ve found that one of the most complex aspects of a new culture or language is learning to fully understand and appreciate the humor.

    Here is a silly Laffy Taffy joke that I tell my students. “What did one math book say to the other? I’ve got my own problems.”

  3. Briggs,

    You may like P. J. Farmers Riders of the Purple Wage. It’s a 90 page joke although a bit low on the octane as it keeps running after the punchline and, no, the punchline is not the title. Not sure what to call the title. It’s really not a pun but a use of a sound-alike word, as in “Kicks are for Trids”. For those who eschew oaters, there is a Zane Grey title Riders of the Purple Sage.

    The Cohen brothers movie Blood Simple ends in a punchline and is loaded with dark humor.
    Hitchcock couldn’t resist a punchline at the end of The Trouble with Harry.

    “cur tailed” wouldn’t work well when spoken. It takes a special mind to insert that space besides “cur” isn’t all that common for most to even consider it. Your students would probably just ask what “curtailed” means.

    If I follow where you were going, then ALL puns are bad jokes by definition?

    Just out of curiosity, doesn’t “it has never ceased to fail to produce a laugh” mean if ALWAYS produces a laugh? The rest of the sentence and the next imply you meant otherwise.

  4. A zen buddhist walks up to hot dog stand and says, ‘Make me one with everything.’

    Two antennas got married. The ceremony was rubbish, but the reception was excellent.

    A young harp seal walks into a club…

    What do you call a deer with no eyes?
    No eye deer.

    What do you call a deer with no eyes and no legs?
    Still no eye deer.

    What do you call a fish with no eyes?
    A fsh.

    They say I’m too condescending.
    That means I talk down to people.

  5. “…..never ceased to fail…..”. Isn’t that a triple negative?

    And now for the kids an favorite triad.

    How do you catch an unusual rabbit?
    Unique up on him.

    How do you catch a tame rabbit?
    ‘Tame way, unique up on him.

    Well, how do you catch a common rabbit?
    Come on, you know, unique up on him.

  6. @ Briggs:

    My theory on why the “freak accident” joke is funny and the cannibal and clown joke isn’t:

    As used in you first joke, “freak accident” has a double meanning. 1) an accident involving freaks and 2) an extremely rare accident.

    The cannibal/clown joke attempts to use the double meaning of “funny” (makes you laugh vs tastes bad), but falls short because most people can’t relate to the idea that human flesh would taste anything but “funny”, and many people don’t find clowns funny.

  7. Chuckles,

    A young harp seal walks into a bar
    The bartender asks, what will you have?
    the seal says anything but a Canadian club

    BTW, I was in the navy and know what a dog watch is, but I doubt most people would have a clue.

  8. A boy was born without eye-lids so they circumcised him, cut the remnant in half and grafted the two pieces as lids. He turned out to be cock-eyed. But he did have foresight.

  9. The cannibal / clown joke is a wonder and doesn’t fall short at all. One can read it as having the clown expressing a hint of disappointment that it doesn’t taste funny after all.

  10. A lion was walking about and saw 2 men under a tree, one had a novel and the other was typing. Of course the lion ate the former because even he knows that readers digest while writers cramp.

  11. similar: cannibals catch a missionary; they start to march him towards a big pot of hot water, but the chief hollers, “No boiling water! That missionary a friar!”
    Two favorites:
    The art critic said, “I speak more in Seurat than Ingres…”
    The rancher’s wife called the family cattle ranch “Focus” because that’s where her sons raise meat.

  12. First reference I’ve seen EVAH to the “kicks are for Trids” punch line. And all along I thought it was just a family embarassment 🙂

    Another family favorite:

    How does a ram call his mate? Hey ewe.

  13. I think the “cur tailed” example is on the same plane as “You can’t starve in the desert because of all the sandwiches there.”

  14. A skeleton walks into a bar and says “give me a beer and a mop.”

    The best joke of all time?

    Why do male dogs lick their balls?
    Because they can.

    I know, I know you’ve all heard it but so good it never wears thin.

  15. Police were called to the quosimoto look alike contest when a disturbance broke out and the crowd turned ugly.

  16. I saw a farmer walking on the side of the road and said to my companion, “Now there’s a man who stands out in his field.”

  17. Seems you don’t even need to invent a bad joke these days…

    Here’s one bout Julian Assange

    From Time.com:

    “Swedish prosecutors say he has been accused of having had unprotected sex with a woman, identified only as Miss A, despite her insistence that he use a condom…”
    http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2035817,00.html?xid=rss-mostpopular

    Then from CNN.com:

    “Assange’s lawyer, Mark Stephens, called evidence against his client “very thin”…”
    http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/12/08/wikileaks.poison.pill/index.html?hpt=C1

  18. My friends all laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian. Well they’re not laughing now!

    Two hippos are lying in a pool under the hot African sun. One turns to the other and says, “I keep thinking it’s Tuesday”. Originally a cartoon.

    My children have told me that they find Dad’s puns reassuring and provide them with a sense of security. I am happy to oblige.

  19. An African biologist had succeeded in breeding a form of dolphin that lives forever, but the fish has a very restrictive diet–it can only survive on baby birds.

    One day, returning from a raid on some sea-birds nests, he came upon two lions napping in the middle of the path to his laboratory. Carefully, so as not to wake them, he stepped over the felines.

    At that point, he was promptly arrested for transporting young gulls across sedate lions for immortal porpoises.

  20. Two men were walking along and saw a male dog licking himself between the legs. One said “I wish I could do that”. The other said “you had better pet him first”

  21. In the 1960s, those who began following their guru’s advice to avoid Novocaine at the dentist office to seek a higher level of awareness, chose to ‘transcend dental medication’.

  22. What did the girl snail say to the boy snail?

    “Things are moving way to fast.”

    — look at the ‘S’ car go!

  23. Terrorists captured a plane full of lawyers and threatend to release one each hour until their demands were met.

    What is the difference between a lawyer and a cat fish? One is a bottom dwelling scum eater and the other lives underwater.

  24. Two men were walking along and saw a male dog licking himself between the legs. One said “I wish I could do that”. The other said “you had better pet him first”

    or The other says “He’ll bite you!” (and when Lewis Grizzard told it, the dog was UGA the Georgia mascot)

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