No Laughing Matter: Eight Scholars in Search of a Joke

By Berger, Arthur Asa | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview

No Laughing Matter: Eight Scholars in Search of a Joke


Berger, Arthur Asa, ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


THERE ARE MANY WAYS to analyze a joke, each of which is tied to the perspective of the person making the analysis. To demonstrate this, I will offer a joke and then present eight different interpretations of the joke, each one derived from a particular discipline or perspective.

A man walks into a bar. "I'm Jim," he says to the bartender. "I'm gay. Will you serve me?" "Sure," says the bartender. "What will you have?" "A beer," says Jim The next day Jim walks into the bar with another man. "This is my brother Bob," he says to the bartender. "He's gay. Will you serve us?" "Of course," says the bartender. "What'll you guys have?" "Two beers," says Jim. The next day Jim and Bob walk into the bar accompanied by another man. "This is my brother Sam," say Jim. "He's gay. Will you serve us?" "Yes," says the bartender. "What do you guy want?" "Three beers," says Jim. After the bartender serves the men the beers he asks, "Does anyone in your family like women?" "Of course," says Jim. "Our sister Sally does, but she doesn't drink."

Let's see, now, how each of our scholars analyzes this joke. These analyses wil be brief and are meant to suggest the kinds of things people with different perspectives concern themselves with when dealing with a joke or any text (the term conventionally used in literary studies for any work, such as a story, novel, poem, television program, and so on).

The Rhetorician

For our purposes, the rhetorician will focus on the techniques used to generate the humor in this text. The most important technique, I would suggest, is one I call "Disappointment and Defeated Expectations." The punch line in this joke, "Of course," suggests that at least one member of the family is heterosexual, but it turns out not to be the case, for the member of the family that likes women is a woman, and thus the family remains firmly homosexual. In this respect, it is most unusual and thus we find the technique of eccentricity, comic types, and that kind of thing, at work, also. In addition, there is the repetition, in which we are introduced to the first, second, and third brother, thus heightening the significance of the question by the bartender ("Doesn't anyone like women?") and of the punch line ("Of course...our sister Sally does...").

Semiotic Analysis

One of the important techniques semioticians use, when they deal with texts, is to consider their paradigmatic structure -- the set of oppositions found in the (some would say read into them) that give them meaning. Concepts have meaning, Saussure argued, due to their relationships with other concepts; nothing has meaning in itself. Thus, a paradigmatic analysis of this joke would yield the following set of oppositions:

NORMAL                    DEVIANT

Heterosexuality           Homosexuality
Bartender                 Brothers and Sister
Males like Women          Females like Women

The joke is based on this set of linked notions that are found under each main concept. Listeners to the joke don't necessarily bring this set of oppositions to mind, but they must recognize it if the joke is to make any sense and the punch line is to be effective. When the bartender asks whether anyone in the family likes women, the question assumes the polarity between normal and devian (we cannot use negations in making our oppositions because they don't tell us enough). The bartender assumed he was asking about males in the family who like women, about people who were "normal." The punch line only makes sense in that context, and its humor comes from the way it defeats our expectation of normalcy.

Communications Theory

Communications theory is a very broad field. Roman Jakobson's model involves an addresser, an addressee, coding and decoding of a message, etc. According to some communications theorists, a message has information to the extent that it has a surprise. Thus, jokes, since they have punch lines, contain information. …

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No Laughing Matter: Eight Scholars in Search of a Joke
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