An Explanation for Why You Shouldn’t Explain the Joke

See here for the Finnish version: Selitys sille, miksi vitsejä ei saa selittää.

I’ll try writing the Finnish version first for this once. Who knows if it’ll make any noticeable difference.

How does the sense of humour work, and why does it exist? Overall, I don’t know. I have, however, noticed that there is often one common element in humour. It’s the reason why jokes aren’t so funny when explained.

I have to admit that I know almost nothing about any existing studies on humour. As such, I may be missing essential background knowledge on this subject, which the reader should keep in mind. It may be the case that what I say here has already been said (which would not be surprising at all), or even that something is already known that proves me wrong. In any case, these observations seem worth mentioning.

A merchant ship was sailing across the sea back in the old days. One day the lookout shouted that a pirate ship was approaching. Upon hearing this, the captain gave the order “Bring me my red shirt!” He put on the shirt and led his men in the battle against the pirates and defeated them.

A couple of days later, the lookout shouted that two pirate ships were approaching. Again the captain said “Bring me my red shirt!” and led his men in a victorious battle.

The crew began to grow curious, and they asked the captain what the purpose of the red shirt was. He explained that it would hide the blood should he get wounded, so that he could go on fighting without worrying the crew.  The crewmembers were impressed at this, and their respect for the captain increased.

Another couple of days went past. Then the lookout shouted that there were now ten pirate ships approaching. The crew turned expectantly to the captain. He gave the order:

“Bring me my brown trousers!”

A good joke is typically a clever one, and it may take the hearer a while to get it. (On the other hand, a shrewd listener may for the same reason guess the punchline beforehand by guessing where the joke is leading.) As far as I can see, the joke’s being funny happens at the point when the hearer understands the implicit message of the joke; something is not stated directly, but the hearer has to figure it out themselves. That’s why it’s not good to explain the joke. That leaves out the experience of realisation. If you do have to explain the joke, it may in fact be better if the hearer doesn’t understand it immediately after hearing the explanation but has to think for a second, which again provides the moment of realisation. This, then, is the grounds for my hypothesis that an important part of humour is often the participation of the recipient.

How does a blond kill a fish?

— By drowning it.

Superficial jokes that often rely on crude stereotypes — some of which almost seem to exist more for the purpose of jokes than anything else — don’t require much by the way of intellectual input from the hearer. But they, too, rely on the recipient’s “knowledge” that completes the joke. In this case, it’s stereotypical thinking, for example “Women with blond hair are dumb.” So this too requires recipient participation; the humour is created when they fill out the story of the joke: the blond did that because she’s dumb. Still, often there is a little bit of something as well that isn’t explicitly said (you can’t drown a fish). In this kind of jokes the stereotypes are often presented as stereotypes and not taken seriously. One should be careful anyway; considering what amounts of prejudice people can have without realising it, jokes may well be one type of speech that creates it.

Heisenberg’s dog is unhappy because he can’t remember where he buried a juicy bone.

Heisenberg consoles his pet:

“We may not know the location of your bone, but we know its speed exactly!”

The same thinking can be further extended to allusions, inside jokes and Internet memes. In allusions one references something known to the audience, such as a line from a particular movie. Inside jokes work on the same basis, but that word is used to emphasize that only the members of a particular group will understand the joke — such as in the case of the theoretic physics joke above. A meme, in turn, is any piece of information that spreads from one person to another — a joke, a YouTube video, a belief, anything. As far as I’ve understood, “Internet meme” is often used to refer to a meme that spreads on the Internet whose mere repetition is treated as if a joke. For example, the sentence “All your base are belong to us” from the poor English translation of a game called Zero Wing once spread widely and pointlessly and still hasn’t been forgotten. In all of the above cases the joke’s being funny seems to be based on the recipient’s contribution: Ha, I know what this is all about.

This hypothesis may even explain one thing that one of my teachers in English Philology was wondering about a few years ago. The topic being discussed was code-switching, and one possible motivation mentioned for switching languages in the middle of speech was that for some reason it could be humorous. This too might derive from the recipient’s feeling of participation: Ha, I can understand that much of that other language as well.

If someone considers a joke boringly simple, this too could be caused by the lack of being able to contribute. Understanding a joke based on merely repeating a stereotype or (other) meme doesn’t in the end require any contribution beyond retrieving a simple piece of data from one’s memory, and one can get bored of such. On the other had, inside jokes may feel funnier because the information required for them is something that not everyone has access to, and having it emphasizes one’s being “special” in some respect. It should still be remembered, though, that this all is nothing but speculation that sounds reasonable to me.

As a final note, I don’t think this factor is the only basis of humour. Other things that arouse the sense of humour seem to be at least irony, unexpectedness, absurdity, and talking about embarrassing subjects.


  • The joke about the captain of the ship I read in Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, though I don’t think it originates there. I have in any case formulated it here myself, which may show in the sense that I’m not used to writing in the genre.
  • The “blond” joke is from page 63 of Suomen parhaat vitsit 1998 (“Finland’s Best Jokes 1998”, not that I agree) by Henrik Muste and Kari Kallis.
  • The joke about Heisenberg’s dog is from the Tiede magazine, 9/2010, page 34, from the article “Epätarkkuus on elämän ehto” (“Uncertainty Is a Precondition of Life”) by Petri Forssell. Tiede is a Finnish popular science magazine. The article is about Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, according to which certain pairs of properties of a particle, such as speed and position, can’t be known completely accurately at the same time, and the more accurately one is known, the less accurately the other can be.

Sama suomeksi.


One thought on “An Explanation for Why You Shouldn’t Explain the Joke

  1. Vilma K. says:

    Helium floats into a bar and asks for a drink. The bartender says, “We don’t serve noble gases here!” and asks him to leave. Helium does not react.

    Two atoms are sitting in a bar. One says to the other, “I think I’ve lost an electron.” The other asks, “Are you sure?” To which the first replies, “I’m positive.”

    Heh heh heh. ^^

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