Learning to tell jokes

Yesterday’s One Big Happy, in which Ruthie works at telling jokes:

Part of acquiring a language is acquiring a large assortment of social routines using that language — including joke patterns. Linguists studying conversation have looked at the acquisition of a number of different joke types, for example knock-knock jokes, where they see the gradual unfolding of the abilities involved in producing and appreciating jokes. For instance, many jokes turn on puns, so that a child has to learn that exact wording can be crucial to the joke; paraphrase won’t do. But children often fail to appreciate that, while still understanding that laughter is called for at a certain point in the joke.

There’s the famous elephant-duck joke, which goes:

Joke-teller: How do you get down off an elephant?

Audience: I dunno.

Joke-teller: You don’t get down off an elephant, you get down off a duck! [Laughter]

The word down (ambiguous as between an adverbial and a noun) is crucial here, but children sometimes fail to appreciate that, which leads to several forms of misfiring. The adverbial is omissible, so that some children omit down throughout: “How do you get off an elephant? … you get off a duck!” [Laughter nevertheless]

Others omit it only in certain places, presumably because three occurrences of the word seems needlessly repetitious.

Ruthie in this OBH paraphrases the punchline she’s heard (“because they couldn’t keep their trunks up”), which turns on the ambiguity of the noun trunks, referring either to bathing trunks or to the elephantine body-part. Unfortunately, Ruthie’s version (“because their britches kept falling down”) loses the body-part sense, but she still thinks it’s funny. Not so her older brother.

One Response to “Learning to tell jokes”

  1. Dean Allemang Says:

    My dad tells a story about a colleague of his who famously did not get jokes, even after they were explained. One day, my dad told the following joke (which is unfortunately quite dated):

    ‘I was flying cross-country on a major airline, and the stewardess came by in her mini-skirt, and asked me, “Would you like some TWA Coffee? Or some TWA milk?”
    I took one look at her skirt and said, “No, but sure would like some TWA Tea!”

    My dad’s buddy was a bit paranoid, and thought that people would tell him non-jokes, just to fool him (since he never managed to get a joke anyway). he was certain that this wasn’t really a joke. He set out to prove this by re-telling the joke. He was sure that nobody would actually laugh at it, since it wasn’t really a joke.

    So he went to a random passer-by and started to tell the joke:

    ‘I was flying cross-country, and the stewardess asked me, “Would you like some American Airlines Coffee? …”‘

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