Why Is This Joke Funny?


This very special installment of “Old Jews Telling Jokes” lasts a solid 2-plus minutes, but stick with it. Then click through and let’s discuss it, shall we?

Okay, what did you think? You either loved it or hated it, right? “Jews” producer Eric Spiegelman had an interesting reaction.

I need someone to explain why this makes me laugh. Calling it “absurdist humor” isn’t quite sufficient. There are all these comics who treat comedy like a science – something akin to psychology, I imagine – constantly looking for predictable and consistent ways to incite laughter in another person. I need one of those funnymen of letters to speak up here.

In person, hearing this joke was an experience. After the punchline (that word deserves to be in quotes here), there was a long, silent pause. Then the audience exploded. Nobody understood why.

There was a similar long pause following Daniel Okrent’s “Schmuck,” but that was due, I suspect, to the sophistication of the punchline, the long cognitive jump you had to make to realize its brilliance. The pause for this one was longer, and it was not followed by any great epiphany. It doesn’t make any sense.

You will obviously have your own explanation. My enjoyment of the joke, and explanation for same, is due to the combination of its absurdity and its length. I’m certainly on record as being a fan of the long joke, but John Pleshette’s bit here is something more than the lengthy joke just referenced, which does, at least, conform to certain standards. The absurdity of Pleshette’s punchline only works because of the length: You are literally set up by the set-up to expect some sort of humorous, affirmative stopping point. When you reach the end and the joke collapses in on itself, your response is a reaction to, yes, the absurdity, but also the way in which you’ve registered that absurdity. You’ve been taken for a long walk around the barn only to end up at the place where you’ve started, technically no wiser but still jarred by the recognition that you’re back at the front of the barn, and not only was the trip pointless, that pointlessness was the point of the trip.

Or maybe it’s just that the word “fuck” is funny. I don’t know. This is probably we shouldn’t try to explain jokes. They just are, like light or air.