A reference to the Good News Bad News joke routine that was illustrated in my 6/27/19 posting “The Desert Island Reaper” — seen below in its BN/GN variant, which is often dark or nasty:

From Cyanide and Happiness, a strip that specializes in dark BN/GN jokes

Now: a survey of the BN/GN discussion on this blog, leading to a guest posting by Larry Horn on the topic (which I have edited and amended.

Previously on this channel. In the 6/27 posting, a Rhymes With Orange cartoon with a GN/BN joke in which the BN is unspoken, but implicit in the drawing; two further cartoon examples (a Benjamin Schwartz GN/BN example and a Cyanide and Happiness BN/GN example); plus a query about the history of the routine.

Then in comments:

— Chris Hansen with two GN/BN favorites of his

— from ADS-L, Peter Reitan with a GN/BN example from 1942

— from  ADS-L, Jon Lighter with a GN/BN example from 1936 and Stephen Goranson with a GN/BN example from 1871; plus a note from Garson O’Toole that the 1871 version is an inversion of a conventional BN/GN tale

— from ADS-L, Geoff Nathan on the variant:

The good thing about X is Y.
The bad thing about X is Y.

(conveying that the property Y of X is both good (in one way) and bad (in another); followed by another example of this sort from Maggie Winters

— on ADS-L, Garson O’Toole with a BN/GN anecdote published in 1852 (but attributed to 1837)

All of this drives us back from the American vaudeville and British music hall, where such jokes seem to have been a staple, towards the joke books of the 18th and 19th centuries, about which I know very little.

Notes from Larry Horn. In e-mail to me this morning; reproduced here with permission (and my editing):

1) In the classic GN/BN joke, the BN usually comes second (as the category name implies), overwhelming and often canceling the effect of the GN

[AZ: There are tons of websites with examples of the joke form, some entirely verbal, some developed into cartoons; most have the GN/BN form, with minor variations in the syntax of the two portions of the joke, for instance:

I have / I’ve got  good news (for you) and bad news: the good news is … and the bad news is …

There’s good news and there’s bad news: the good news is … and the bad news is …

The good thing (about X) is … and the bad thing is …]

2) In some jokes, the more significant bad news is unspoken, accessed via a redundancy rule through tacit inference:

2a) The doctor tells his patient “I have some good news and some bad news.”

“I can’t take any more bad news,” the distraught patient says. “Just give me the good news.”

The doctor replies, “They’re going to name this disease after you.”

2b) Honey, I have good news and bad news about the car.

[Sigh] Give me the good news first.

The airbags work!

3) When GN comes second [in the BN/GN, or inverted, variant], it’s anticlimactic (whence the humorous effect):

Nurse:    “There’s good news and bad news.”

Patient:  “Please give me the bad news first.”

Nurse:    “We’re going to have to remove both your legs.”

Patient:  “What’s the good news?”

Nurse:   “The patient in the next bed wants to buy your sneakers.”

[4) Which comes first?] In fact, it turns out there’s research on the order in which patients and other recipients prefer to be presented with the good and bad news in more serious contexts:

Legg, Angela & Kate Sweeney. 2013. Do You Want the Good News or the Bad News First? The Nature and Consequences of News Order Preferences. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40: 279 –288. (link)

Based on their studies and others, Legg & Sweeny conclude that from 75% to up to 88% of prospective recipients choose to hear the bad news first. “If people know they are going to get bad news, they would rather get it over with,” Legg notes in an interview. “Then, if there is good news to follow, “you end on a high note.”

[5) Behagel’s Second Law] The prominence of what comes second dovetails nicely with the general finding — [in Larry’s work in progress, “There are conjuncts and (then) there are conjuncts: revisiting Behaghel’s Second Law”) — that in cases of Contrast (as opposed to e.g. Narration), ranging over a number of distinct conjoined constructions*, the latter conjunct is more salient/highlighted than the former.

(*such as: P but Q; Not only P but (also) Q; There are X and (then) there are X; A is A but B is B)

[AZ: (Otto) Behagel’s Second Law (in a set of principles governing the position of words and phrases in a sentence): That which is less important (or already known to the listener) is placed before that which is important. Old / Given before New. Topic before Comment. Theme before Rheme / Focus.]

One Response to “GN/BN”

  1. maxvasilatos Says:

    Remy Charlip, an illustrator and author of many children’s books, complex enough for everybody and full of jokes, wrote one that was a series of “Fortunately… then, Unfortunately….” in that vein.

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