Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Razor sharp humor

The radio show Okham's Razor, starring Robyn Williams has a show on humor, from a grammar point of view. It's good, but not very funny. Download it now and listen to it, or read the transcript. I'll wait.

Everyone knows that jokes that are explained are universally not funny. One assumes that people who study humor, called 'jokeologists', are singularly unfunny people. Comedians study humor. Most people will claim that they can't remember jokes. Jokes are generally nonsense - who could remember that? It seems that most people can't tell jokes very well. That may be because they don't practice. A good comedian can tell jokes and make it look easy because they practice telling jokes until the jokes are old and tired. They're literally not funny any more. And that gets us back to how jokeologists are people that are not funny, at least to themselves. But don't feel bad for the poor comedian. The jokes were funny for them once. And they get a rush when the audience is amused.

Groucho used elephants because elephants are inherently funny. He could have use a cow, if cows weren't so cuddly. Groundhogs are funny, but they also might fit in Groucho's pajamas. And shirts aren't nearly as funny as pajamas. Groucho even breaks the rule about explaining his joke, and gets away with it. That's genius. Anyone else trying that would be considered conceited. Content is important. This is the main problem with the humor constructed by ten year olds. It should be noted that your average ten year old knows how to properly use ten thousand rules of grammar. Where a ten year old's attempts at humor go wrong is generally in content, not grammar.

Many of my friends who are mathematicians are some of the funniest people around. Perhaps their jokes are funny because the rules their humor break have no ambiguity to exploit, and when broken shake the foundations of the Universe. Perhaps these jokes are funny because there's a sense that it took more work to create them. Mark Twain said that it takes about two weeks to come up with a really good extemporaneous comment.

The problems with teaching grammar are related to the problems of teaching math(s). 1) The plethora of definitions. 2) The applications that might provide context aren't elucidated. 3) The use of arbitrary rules that are difficult to cope with (where extra work is needed to avoid having a preposition at the very end). 4) The use of vocabulary that is specialized to the point of obfuscation. Math(s) teaching goes further with this obfuscation bit by using symbols that are apparently invented on the spot, often using glyphs pulled from other languages, without explanation. Symbols introduce indirection, which is an irritant to the non-specialist. For the mathematician, if one knows how to go from New York to Detroit, and one knows how to go from Detroit to Boston, then one knows how to go from New York to Boston. The rest of us will get out a map and figure out how to go from New York to Boston directly, since that's likely to be less than a tenth of the distance, as it was even when gas (petrol) was cheaper. Neither math(s) nor grammar make much sense or appear to have much use (power to achieve any likely goals). It's too bad, since both math and grammar are among the most powerful tools ever invented.

When the ten year old says, "My friend and me went to the store", i don't correct it by stating "My friend and I". I explain that 'Me went to the store' doesn't sound as good as 'I went to the store'. I have no idea what the formal rule is. Ten year olds don't get the rule right mainly because they don't think about the whole sentence before it comes out of their mouth. I want to teach the child to think a bit before they speak. It would solve so many other issues.

Just as with the doctor, a ten year old is only a little patient. Computers have infinite patience. If computers could be taught grammar, and were fed a dictionary, could they produce huge amounts of humor? Perhaps IBM's Watson could take up this new avocation.

My favorite one liner is this: A Zen master went to his hot dog vendor and said, "Make me one with everything"'.

I heard it again in the movie "The Bicentennial Man", starring of all people, Robin Williams. There aren't any jokes near it. I'd heard it before, and laughed right away. Some thirty seconds later, someone else in the theater laughed. Then a couple guys laughed at what must have been five minutes. When i tell it, not everyone gets it. I figured that they didn't know what Zen is or something. So i told it to a group of five of my Indian colleagues. They didn't laugh. I asked them about it. One said that "It's not a Zen Master. It's a Buddhist monk." Another said, "And they're vegetarian, so they wouldn't be eating hot dogs." And so on. In fact, i counted nearly as many errors in the joke as words in it. It's not that they didn't get it, it was just too broken for them to be funny. To me, that's what makes it funny. And listing the things wrong with it doesn't diminish it as a joke. Though, to be fair, i've practiced telling it quite a bit.

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