taking the fun out of funny
Here’s a joke that’s going around the internet.: The family was gathering for a big dinner to kick off the holiday season. My wife insisted on including the children and grandchildren too, against my better judgment. When everyone had arrived, from all over the country, we sat down to dinner.
During the meal, my five year old grandson, Edward, directly across the table, stared at me without so much as a single blink. He hardly touched his food. I checked myself to see if I had gravy stains on my shirt, or turkey in my mustache, but nope, I was in order. Finally, unable to bear the intense gaze any longer, I asked him, “What are you staring at?”
I wasn’t the only one who had noticed Edward’s behavior, so the question effectively stopped all conversation.
Without taking his eyes off me, he replied, “I’m just waiting to see how you drink like a fish.”
This is a good joke--a cute story, possibly true, possibly made-up, with a good punchline. We are now going to take a closer look at how it works to make us laugh. In the process, of course, we will ruin it forever as a joke, but the exercise will be worth it.
Edward, like all children in the world, is taking the math and science approach to language. In math class, numbers always have the same value. We wouldn’t get very far in solving a problem if they didn’t! What’s more, numbers always behave in predictable ways.
When children add 3 apples to 2 apples in first grade, they learn a great deal more than the sum of 5 apples. This is true precisely because the rules of math are consistent and predictable.