Friday, August 22, 2008


Bad journalism does not.

Research by a Washington State University linguist found that people who tell bad jokes often endure an astonishing outpouring of hostility from the listeners.

"Astonishing"? "Outpouring of hostility"? A nasty glare is more severe and traumatic than I realized, I guess.

"These were basically attacks intended to result in the social exclusion or humiliation of the speaker, punctuated on occasion with profanity, a nasty glare or even a solid punch to the arm," said researcher Nancy Bell.

Hate the joke, love the joker.

The bad joke used in the research:

"What did the big chimney say to the little chimney?

"Nothing, chimneys can't talk."

The responses to this childish riddle included insults, glares, silence or even blows.

Among the range of responses, maybe blows represent an astonishing outpouring of hostility. But even then, they would have to be some pretty serious blows, more than the disapproving punch to the arm.

There are several reasons for the strong responses.

First, such canned humor often disrupts the natural flow of conversation. And jokes that fail to deliver humor are a violation of a social contract, so punishing the teller can discourage similar behavior in the future.

Finally, a stupid joke insults the listener by suggesting that he or she might actually find it funny, Bell said.

That makes sense. But did it require research? Fortunately no tax dollars were harmed in the implementation of the research. This sounds suspiciously like a study that was conducted as a vehicle to deliver preconceived findings. Me, cynical?

The chimney joke made it into 207 conversations. An astonishing 44 percent of the reactions were classified as "impolite," intended to deeply embarrass the joke teller. The toughest responses came from people who knew the joke teller well, she found.

Again with the astonishment.

Children were especially hostile to failed humor by their parents.

Don't I know it. But I am determined to keep trying. Thankfully Junto Boys are more forgiving.

I am suffering a version of this phenomenon. My kids keep asking me to tell them funny made-up stories like I did when they were two, but now the threshold of funny is higher and I fear not clearing it and violating the social contract. The worst of it is, they remember the details of those silly stories that I have long forgotten and they want me to tell them the same way.

Thankfully, failed humor is relatively rare in the U.S., where laughter is prized, said Bell.

Is it me, or did that statement contradict the whole slant of the article? Is this what they call journalistic balance? Balancing statements that make a point with statements that invalidate the point? I thought an astonishing 44 percent responded impolitely.


Sir Saunders said...

Jokes are all in the timing, it's how it's being told as much as what is being told. I think jokes themselves are lame unless there is a point (like they enhance a moment of conversation or make a point). I prefer saying funny things in the moment. I think most of the Junto Boys are pretty legendary at saying funny things. I remember when all the Seeger's came down and rented that house. We were playing poker and I was up a few chips then lost everything on one hand. E then looks up very slowly and says, "Slow and steady wins the race." Although the humor lay in the retelling.

Tom said...

I read once that men tend to remember jokes more than women because being funny is a competition. But like Sir Saunders I find situational humor much more funny.

Anyone can remember the joke someone else wrote, except for me. I think I have a joke bag of about 10 jokes that I remember through the years, some corny.

I remember this time playing poker in the Seeg dining room. E was in town wearing a cap of a slain leader. Someone asked if he had been assassinated and E said deadpan, "He went down in a flurry of bullets." It doesn't look like much in print but the delivery was everything.

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