The Setting: A breakfast table, late 90s or early 00s
The Characters: Me (Tony), my parents (Joe and Jeanne), some family friends (Glen and Becky)
One of my parents (can’t remember which one): [To my other parent] What are you reading?
Other parent: [Reading a newspaper] It’s an article about people working for women’s right to breastfeed in public. They call themselves “Lactivists,” like “lactose activists.”
Glen: What do they call their opponents?
Me: [Despite not having said anything yet this morning does not miss a beat] “Lactivist Intolerant.”
Everyone: [Appreciative laughter]
Why it’s so great: This one has it all. It’s got the content (brilliant wordplay), the timing (made all the more impressive by the fact that I had been awake for only a few minutes), and the sort of cutting edge social commentary that belies the fact that I was a mere preteen when this happened. And, as a youth, I was a risk taker. Would my audience make the connection to “lactose intolerant”? Would this joke be “politically incorrect”? It didn’t matter. Or, perhaps, it did matter, but the joke mattered more. And this is the mark of comedy greatness: it pushes us—not to a breaking point, but just outside what we thought was “good enough.”
The Setting: Dog Story Theater, late 00s or early 10s, a comedy show in which improvisers interview a local celebrity about their life and then do a show based on their story
The Characters: Me (Tony), several other comedians (six to eight people), a West Michigan celebrity, an audience (about sixty people)
Local celebrity: [Describes moving to California, learning to surf, and meeting a young woman who would later become his wife]
Local celebrity (cont.): [Immediately after describing the woman’s beauty and her flirting with him] … so I had my reasons for staying in California.
Me: [After a masterful, pregnant pause] You’d gotten really into surfing, huh?
Everyone: [Uproarious laughter]
Why it’s so great: Comedy often comes down to subversion of expectations. The dumb person does something smart; the fragile vase doesn’t break, but the thick one does; the butler isn’t who we thought he was. It is perhaps the oldest and mostly widely used tool of humor—ubiquitous to the point that one of the most famous jokes in the English language is a subversion of the expectation of jokes having a subversive punch line. The joke:
Somebody: Why did the chicken cross the road?
Somebody else: Why?
That first person again: To get to the other side.
Because we have become accustomed to the question-and-answer joke format, the joke receiver here expects an indirect answer to the question: an answer that contains e.g. a pun. Instead, the joke receiver gets a perfectly ordinary answer. An answer so reasonable that it subverts subversion itself.
This is the tradition from which I drew to make this joke. In telling his story, the local celebrity’s open-ended statement (“I had my reasons”) was clearly meant to evoke the woman about whom he had just been speaking. This was the expectation that the audience had. In the silence leading up to my delivery, I let every member of the audience conjure and cement this expectation so that I, like an eighth-century Byzantine iconoclast, could shatter that deeply revered belief to pieces. And thus
The Setting: A classroom, Spring 2017
The Characters: Me (Tony), A Professor, Several Grad Students (about a dozen people)
Me: [Giving a presentation about some economics research; it was a paper about how the end of the Cold War and the infusion of Soviet mathematicians into the world academic mathematics scene affected research output by non-Soviet mathematicians—especially American mathematicians]
Me (cont.): [One of the slides is titled: “The Mathematical Consequences of the Peace”]
Everyone else: [Shows no apparent signs of noticing the joke.]
Why it’s so great: The background here is that John Maynard Keynes (widely regarded as one of the most influential economists of all time) wrote a book called “The Economic Consequences of the Peace” in 1919. He was writing about the effects of the Versailles Treaty following World War I, but I took that, I recontextualized it, and I made it hilarious.
The fact that many people would not recognize this as a joke is precisely what makes this joke so great. In two words: shared context. A great deal of humor is derived from cleverly referencing things we have in common: knowledge, experience, etc. This is the premise of “inside jokes.” By referencing a famous book by a famous economist in front of a group of people who are studying economics, I made an “inside joke.”
In some ways, this is the equal and opposite of subversion of expectations. In order for me to know your expectations, we must have some shared context. Given this shared context, I could subvert your expectations (as in the previous joke). Or, I could play with the context and celebrate it with a charming reference, as I did with this joke.
The response to this joke is a good example of true genius not being appreciated in its own time.
Tony graduated in 2012 with majors in mathematics and economics. He now lives in Chicago and is pursuing graduate study in economics. He also has a very good cultural trivia podcast called “Here’s My Number, So Call Me Ishmael” available on Libsyn, iTunes, and Google Play.