What makes a Great Joke?

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What makes a great joke? This question unexpectedly shaped my research. Ten years ago, I decided to try something I’ve always loved—stand-up comedy. I didn’t make it very far in the comedy world, mostly open mic nights at comedy clubs and a couple paid gigs at colleges, but it gave me the opportunity to hang out with working comedians talking about humor.

Then, I discovered a growing literature in the philosophy of humor and realized that what the philosophers were writing about humor was very different from what the comedians were saying. It led me to think about humor differently and that led to several papers delivered at the annual conference of the Lighthearted Philosophers Society, and ultimately to my latest book, Isn’t That Clever: A Philosophical Account of Humor and Comedy.

Jokes, I argue, are conspicuous acts of playful cleverness. The most important term in the definition is “clever,” by which I mean that it displays a cognitive virtue, a way of thinking that would be good to have outside of the artistic context of a joke. It could be Jerry Seinfeld’s observational abilities, Dennis Miller’s wide range of knowledge, Steven Wright’s imagination, or Frank Caliendo’s attention to detail. It is taking an intellectual ability and displaying it in a way that plays with something artistically. A good joke is one that is legitimately clever.

Take George Carlin’s “Why do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?” It’s a fantastic joke. First, it is crafted beautifully— a good joke has to be tight, that is, worded in a way that contains all and only what it needs to do its job, but that wording has to contain a rhythm that allows for the proper timing that will trigger the cognitive switch that generates the laughter.

Further, the content is simple and true. It is something well-known to all, but an element that was completely ignored until it was pointed out. And once you see it, you will never go back to the way you were before the joke.

But what makes it magnificent is the symmetry. Half that joke would be a good joke. Pointing out the incongruity between the name and the meaning of either “parkway” or “driveway” would be clever enough. But the symmetry makes it the verbal equivalent of an M.C. Escher print. It is well-crafted and true, but most of all, clever.

Prof. Steve Gimbel’s research interests include the philosophy of science, humor, and ethics. Recently published books include Einstein: His Space and Times (2015); and Isn’t That Clever: A Philosophical Account of Humor and Comedy (2017).