Asimov

What makes a good bad joke?

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been mining the internet for fool’s gold. And discovering that there’s an awful lot – I use the word “awful” advisedly – of fool’s dross along the way.

Here’s a sample of dross:
So yesterday I bought a gravy boat, then later went to Sushi Train. Gotta say, the food industry is really going places.

Well, there’s a theme going. Transport, food, wordplay, but despite the promise, it doesn’t really go anywhere. And, I hesitate to mention it, but the food industry is going places in real life. Pizza delivery, UberEats, semi-trailers full of beef or milk or bread. It’s all around us.

So where’s the surprise? It’s lame, it’s desperation pun, it’s not going on this site.

The very next item – and I’m drilling down on a Facebook group called “DadJokes” here – is a nice little nugget.
Won my first cage fight today… the budgie didn’t know what hit him.

This is a good one-liner. It’s the last half that pulls it together, with the concept of a double incongruity: that someone could seriously think that a birdcage could be included in the “cage fight” category, and that a budgie would be anything like an even match.

Yes, I know it starts to break down if I analyse it too much, but the zinger is delivered in one word – “budgie” – and it’s a subtle punch in that the listener has to put two and two together to get the joke.

One minor criticism is that the payoff comes too early. For maximum effect, the punchline must come as late as possible:
Won my first cage fight today… that was one surprised budgie!

Humour is often a matter of individual taste. One man’s sideslapper is another’s blank stare, and it’s easy to stray into offensive territory. The sort of jokes you tell your mates down the pub after a few sherberts are probably not going to go down well at the church social. And versa vice, as they say in Vegas.

But there are certain rules and traditions. Isaac Asimov, in his Treasury of Humour, gives a pretty good rundown on the principles of humour. He says, “the one necessary ingredient in every successful joke is a sudden alteration in point of view” and for good measure, “the change in point of view should come, with as little warning as possible, in the last sentence.”

The one necessary ingredient in every successful joke is a sudden alteration in point of view. The change in point of view should come, with as little warning as possible, in the last sentence.

I urge all to read Asimov’s book. It is far from a dry treatise on the engineering of humour. He writes in an entertaining fashion and uses hundreds of examples to illustrate his points.

I won’t say I have a master’s understanding of humour, but like art, I know what makes me laugh. Or groan.

In separating gold from dross to include here, I’m using my own intuition as well as my own understanding of the basic principles of humour. My intention is to pull out as many good bad jokes as I can, maybe moosh a few dodgy ones into a better format, and just ignore the awful clangers.

I know humour’s a personal, changeable concept. I am sure that there will be those who won’t laugh, those who will be offended, those who will sigh.

And those who will laugh and groan in generous measure. It is for those precious few souls that I write.