Scott Weems, Ph.D.

Scott Weems Ph.D.

What’s So Funny?

Political Humor Gone Wrong

What can we learn about politicians when their jokes fail? Sometimes, a lot.

Posted Dec 29, 2017

Caricature by PhotosForClass
Source: Caricature by PhotosForClass

As the author of a book on humor, I’m often asked to analyze what makes particular jokes funny. It’s dangerous because, as E.B. White said, analyzing humor is like dissecting frogs — the subject always dies in the end. Yet, political humor is different. I’m fascinated by it, mostly because it’s often not funny at all. And when it fails, it says a lot about our elected officials.

Let’s take a recent comment by our commander-in-chief as an example. On Thursday, just days before the close of 2017, President Trump said this on Twitter: “In the East, it could be the COLDEST New Year's Eve on record. Perhaps we could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming.”

Actually, the tweet continued on with railings against frivolous government spending, but being scientific means narrowing our focus. So let’s just focus on the joke itself.

First, we must recognize that the comment was indeed a joke. Like when the president “joked” about assaulting alleged criminals while putting them in police cars, he didn’t intend to be taken literally. He wasn’t actually validating climate change, he was being funny, or at least trying to be. We know this because this is what his press secretary claimed following the comment about abusing alleged criminals. “I believe he was joking at the time,” claimed Sarah Huckabee Sanders. She said the same thing after Trump insulted the IQ of his Secretary of State. Which begs the question — does the president really understand what is a joke?

Linguistics, psychologists, and sociologists have conducted extensive research concerning humor. The analysis can be both fascinating and tedious, which is why reading a dissertation on Chris Rock standup will never replace the real thing. But sometimes it’s useful, so let’s take President Trump’s climate change “joke” and break it down.

The basic framework for all jokes is that there is an expectation, and then a violation of that expectation. The psychologist Peter McGraw has a name for the theory, which he called Benign Violation. We laugh when we’re shocked away from our comfortable beliefs, but not too much. To measure how shocked jokes can make us, linguists sometimes map out the scripts describing our mental states before and after we hear them. The difference is the degree of violation. Though the term “script” in this sense can get rather technical, a back-of-the-envelope script analysis is possible too.

With President Trump’s climate change quip, our starting script looks something like this: “It’s cold. But global warming makes things less cold. So we need more global warming.” 

It’s about here that we see a conflict. Nobody wants global warming. Politicians like Trump don’t even think it's real. This is the violation, the thing that gets our minds going. When Groucho Marx claimed, “One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How it got in my pajamas, I don’t know,” he was setting up a violation too. Except there, the violation was confusion regarding a fleece onesie. 

That’s what effective jokes do, they set up an expectation, and then send you somewhere else, toward a new script. For Groucho Marx, that “somewhere else” is a pajama-clad elephant. But what is the new script of President Trump’s joke? Herein lies the problem.

There is no destination. Perhaps for President Trump the end of the joke is the observation that if it’s cold today, the climate isn’t warming. Perhaps it’s a statement about belief itself, and how in the “good old days” of President Obama’s administration, believing in global warming actually caused the warming. That’s about as reasonable as a sartorially-challenged pachyderm. The truth is that there are no satisfying resolutions at all. The joke seems to set up the violation part of McGraw’s Benign Violation, then does nothing with it.

President Trump’s quip about banging alleged criminals’ heads against police cars is another good example. The opening script of that joke might be “Hitting people in the head is fine, so long as they’re alleged criminals.” Of course, that leads to a violation, a conflict with our basic beliefs about everybody deserving rights before a trial. And the destination there, the new script, is...

Again, there is no destination.

It’s easy to call anything a joke. A key ingredient for all humor is surprise or violation, but that alone doesn’t make something funny. If I hide behind a door and yell “Booo!” when you walk in the room, that may be surprising, but it’s not humor. It’s being a jerk. 

I was once asked why slapstick is funny, and I replied that sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. The internet is filled with videos of pratfalls, though only some will make you laugh. A woman falling on the ice isn’t funny unless the act violates some expectation, like if she’s also carrying ice skates. In that case we can at least infer that she is familiar enough with ice to normally walk fine, leading to a new script: maybe she shouldn’t be carrying the skates after all. A man being hit in the privates by a baseball isn’t laugh-worthy unless the culprit is his young son, tossing him the toy during a sweet moment of family bonding

Even in these cases, the humor isn’t deep and most of us wouldn’t laugh at all. But at least it follows a formula. As I often share, Johnny Knoxville getting hit by a car while wearing a tuxedo is funny to some people, but the same act while he’s carrying home his groceries is funny to nobody at all. Indeed, it’s a felony.

Which begs the question — what can we infer about someone who understands the violation part of humor, but nothing else? Is this also the kind of person who laughs at the sight of a woman falling on the ice, skates or not? 

And when the goal of a joke is simply to provoke, can we call it a joke at all?