Not so deep thoughts about humor

27 February 2006


Why do birds fly?

Because they don't like to walk.

That was a joke made up by my granddaughter Erin when she was three.  She had learned the form of one kind of joke, without quite mastering the part about being funny.  She made up jokes non-stop for about three hours, most of them even less funny than the above, regaling those trapped in the car with her,  while turning blue from laughing so hard at them herself.

It probably wouldn't be that hard to program a computer to do as well as Erin did.  If it spit out enough two-liners, maybe some of them would be funny.  It might be cheaper for Jay Leno to hire someone to go through the corpus and pick out the funny ones than to pay the high wages of a talented joke-writer.

Our guest for today's show, Tony Veale, hopes to do better than that.  He want to program computers to write jokes, and to that end has studied some of the main theories of humor, some of them from philosophers, to see what help they can be.

David Kaplan once told me of an experience he had while delivering the John Locke lectures at Oxford.  When David lectures, there is always a lot of humor mixed in with the philosophical insights.  His Oxford lectures had left him discouraged on that score; no one seemed to laugh.  While he was contemplating such things in a pub, a man came over to him, introduced himself, and said how much he had enjoyed David's lectures.  "They were not only very interesting philosophically," the man said, "but also the funniest lectures I've ever heard.  Why, there were times when I almost laughed out loud."

David felt better.  I'm sure that story illustrates an important point, although I'm not sure what it is.  The same can be said for each of the following jokes.  If you can figure out the important point, email us during the program.
A married couple in their early 60s was out celebrating their 35th wedding anniversary in a quiet, romantic little restaurant. Suddenly, a tiny yet beautiful fairy appeared on their table and said, "For being such an exemplary married couple and for being faithful to each other for all this time, I will grant you each a wish."

"Oh, I want to travel around the world with my darling husband" said the wife. The fairy waved her magic wand and - poof! - two tickets for the Queen Mary II luxury liner appeared in her hands.

Then it was the husband's turn. He thought for a moment and said: "Well, this is all very romantic, but an opportunity like this will never come again. I'm sorry my love, but my wish is to have a wife 30 years younger than me."

The wife and the fairy were deeply disappointed, but a wish is a wish...

So the fairy waved her magic wand and - poof! - the husband became 92 years old.


Jesus and Satan were having an ongoing argument about
who was better on the computer. They had been going at
it for days, and frankly God was tired of hearing all the

Finally fed up, God said, "THAT'S IT! I have had enough. I
am going to setup a test that will run for two hours, and from
those results, I will judge who does the better job."

So Satan and Jesus sat down at the keyboards and typed

They moused.
They faxed.
They E-mailed.
They E-mailed with attachments.
They downloaded.
They did spreadsheets.
They wrote reports.
They created labels and cards.
They created charts and graphs.
They did some genealogy reports.
They did every job known to man.

Jesus worked with heavenly efficiency and Satan was
faster than hell.

Ten minutes before their time was up, lightning
suddenly flashed across the sky, thunder rolled, rain
poured, and, of course, the power went off. Satan stared at his
blank screen and screamed every curse word known in the underworld.
Jesus just sighed.

Finally the electricity came back on, and each of them
restarted their computers. Satan started searching
frantically, screaming:

"It's  gone! It's all GONE! _!@#@$!@%^#$^!@$%@!!@$_
^#$^!@$@!!@$ ," said Satan.

"I lost everything when the power went out!

Meanwhile, Jesus quietly started printing out all
files from the past two hours of work.

Satan observed this and became irate. "Wait!" he
screamed. "That's not fair! He cheated! How come he
has all his work and I don't have any?"

God just shrugged and said, "JESUS SAVES"

Breakfast for 'the' President

The attractive waitress asks Cheney what he would like and he replies,  "I'll have a bowl of oatmeal and some fruit."

"And what can I get for you . . . sir?" she asks George W.

He replies, "How about a quickie?"

"Why, Mr. President," the waitress says,  'How rude! You're starting to act like President Clinton!"

As the waitress storms away, Cheney leans over to Bush and whispers, "It's pronounced 'quiche".


And finally, two donkey stories:

The Smart Donkey

After years of raising donkeys, an old farmer discovered an unusually intelligent animal. He remembered stories of horses learning to add and subtract by stomping their hooves. Thinking his donkey was smarter than any horse, he went a step further and taught him to multiply and divide.

The farmer was sure the public would pay to see his amazing donkey, so he sold his farm and went on the road, renting booths in fairs to show off the animal's mental prowess.

Unfortunately, he could never find customers who wanted to see his donkey perform. It seems that he learned the hard way that nobody likes a smart ass.

All good things must come to an end: the last of the donkeys' tales.

...but you can't please all of the people all of the time"

An old man, a boy and a donkey were going to town. The boy rode on the
donkey and the old man walked. As they went along they passed some people
who remarked it was a shame the old man was walking and the boy was riding.
The man and boy thought maybe the critics were right, so they changed

Later, they passed some people that remarked, "What a shame, he makes that
little boy walk."  They then decided they both would walk! Soon they passed
some more people who thought they were stupid to walk when they had a
decent donkey to ride. So, they both rode the donkey.

Now they passed some people that shamed them by saying how awful to put
such a load on a poor donkey.  The boy and man said they were probably
right, so they decided to carry the donkey. As they crossed the bridge,
they lost their grip on the animal and he fell into the river and drowned.

The moral of the story?

If you try to please everyone, you might as well kiss your ass good-bye.

[all jokes from Seth Haber, but don't blame him]

Comments (3)

Guest's picture


Wednesday, March 1, 2006 -- 4:00 PM

Here's some humor.... I'm not sure of their names

Here's some humor....
I'm not sure of their names, but the white guy on philosophy talk looks like a short gray-haired version of Rene Descartes.

Guest's picture


Monday, May 1, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Your granddaughter' s observation reminds me the f

Your granddaughter' s observation reminds me the following.
Why do angels fly? Because they don't take themselves seriously.
I shall give another:
why does time flies?
because it has lot of catching up to do with the past before future can also go the same way.
I have a blog where i try to explain the big picture in a bite-size. The title is Sufficient Unto This Day. you are invited to check it out.

Guest's picture


Wednesday, May 31, 2006 -- 5:00 PM

Mel Brooks once said that tragedy is when I get a

Mel Brooks once said that tragedy is when I get a scratch on my finger whereas comedy is when you fall into a sewer and die.
My own personal theory of humor isn't that different and it's one that relies less on philosophy than evolutionary biology. Many biologists think that laughter, or "play-panting," arose in primates began as a way to commemorate the passing of danger and celebrate a brief moment of relative security. Just as our simian forebears laughed their asses off when a tree leopard ran off with somebody's corpse other than their own, we laugh to express the primordial relief we experience when something bad has passed. This is what basically all comedy boils down to. Even the more esoteric abstract comedy like that of Monty Python is funny because to sophisticated, rational minds looking for order in the universe, its absurdities are a temporary shock. They are the metaphysical equivalent of having a leopard pounce into your camp and trot away with someone else in its maw.