22. Humor

Talking Elephants


“What did the elephant say when he stepped on a tack?” That was the riddle asked by one of my friends to our classmates one day in the third grade. Earlier that day, the teacher announced that if they wanted, the students could offer their favorite jokes to the class. Well, the “elephant joke” was the first one.  


The teacher repeated the joke, saying, “Okay, class, does anyone know what the elephant said when he stepped on a tack?” There was a bit of silence. And just before the teacher let the joke-teller himself deliver the punch-line, a boy named Randy raised his hand.


Reluctant, I think, to call on Randy for fear that he might have a smart aleck response and ruin the joke, the teacher tried to overlook him. But Randy was persistent and wanted to venture a guess. So, the teacher did finally call on him.


“Okay, Randy,” said the teacher with hesitation, “what did the elephant say when he stepped on a tack?”

“Damn, that hurt,” said Randy with a loud guffaw.


Well, the classroom just died laughing”teacher included. Randy’s answer was totally unexpected. It wasn’t the right answer, of course. In fact, I don’t think the joke-teller even had the opportunity to deliver the real punch line.  


Ordinarily, Randy – or anyone else – would have gotten in trouble for using a cuss word like that in class. In this case, however, laughter neutralized the situation, and the teacher was just too amused to inflict any punishment.


I remember that day just like it was yesterday. The surprise of Randy’s answer still makes me laugh. It makes me think about the very logic of humor — of how there is a bit of truth in most everything funny. Randy’s answer was actually funny because it was true. Think about it: if an elephant could talk, don’t you think he would’ve probably said something like, “Damn, that hurt?”


Humor Logic


It’s silly, first of all, to think that an elephant could talk. But the listener understands that it’s just a joke, and so he’s willing to go along with the assumption that this must be a special elephant. The opening of the joke has the listener expecting a silly answer to match the silly first assumption. Randy’s answer brought in the surprise of truth, making it even funnier, I’m sure, than the scripted punch-line.  


Here’s another common example of this same logic in humor:


Riddle: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Answer: To get to the other side.


The listener, you see, is expecting a silly answer – something probably to do with chickens. But he gets blindsided – surprised — by the truth, and the relief of laughter quietly confesses: “but of course, ‘to get to the other side.’ I should’ve known that.” Now, think back to Randy’s answer and how it surprised the listeners, making them laugh. Again the laugher confesses: “but of course, what else would the elephant say other than, ‘damn, that hurt.'”


Day 22 Guide


You needn’t go far to find humor. Just look for the unexpected. I believe that humor is a healthy connection of events, making life more like story than merely a collection of happenings.


© 2006, Levi Hill

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