In this article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 4: The Role of Assumptions – One-Liner Jokes – Continued, I’ll assert more axioms to follow how information is processed by the human mind to understand one-liner jokes.
In my previous articles, Universal Joke Structure Explained 1, 2, and 3, I established that all humor and comedy are fundamentally made up of jokes, and that they all have two parts. In one-liner jokes they take the form of setup and punch, which create an imagined 1st story and 2nd story. Which respectively conclude with an expectation and a surprise.
We’ll continue exploring how communication is processed with one-liner jokes, still using the setup: “My wife is an excellent housekeeper.”
Axiom 7 – when we believe we know what something means, our default is to accept it as true, until we find evidence to the contrary.
Now that we believe we know what the setup means and we’ve accepted it as true, this results in us having the expectation that things will continue along this same line of thought.
In this case: a happily married straight man is proud and bragging about how his female wife cleans their house, shops, cooks, does laundry. Their house is organized and tidy. She loves being a housewife and he loves going to work knowing dinner will be on the table when he gets home. The acceptance of these bogus expectations as true constitutes the joke’s misdirection.
Axiom 8 – we can’t be surprised unless we’re expecting something else.
With the setup’s false expectations accepted as true, we can now be surprised by the punch: “When we got divorced, she kept the house.”
As with the setup, we also need to understand the meaning of the punch. To do this, we are forced to mentally shift to a different context, an unhappy, divorced couple. With this new context, we examine the elements of the punch and fill in the incomplete, undefined and implied information by making assumptions.
For instance, “After the divorce,” we make the assumptions that they’re separated and the divorce is final and their settlement has been decided. The phrase, “she kept the house,” means the wife is a home taker.
Having filled in the punch’s incomplete information by making assumptions, we imagine a 2nd story: after a long and bitter divorce, the ex-wife got the better deal by getting the house in the settlement. The husband is so resentful he tells anyone who will listen how his wife took his house and home. This 2nd story organizes all of the assumptions into a scenario which makes sense.
Axiom 9 – the punch is different, yet somehow compatible with the setup.
The meaning of the punch and 2nd story contradicts our established meaning of the setup and 1st story. To resolve this incongruity we search for something in the setup which created the confusion. We discover an ambiguity in the setup that is also shared in the punch. In this case, it’s the word “housekeeper.”
This ambiguity allows us to shift from the setup’s assumed meaning of “housekeeper” as homemaker, to the punch’s alternative, yet compatible, meaning of “housekeeper” as home taker.
Axiom 10 – all jokes are a comparison.
We then compare the punch and 2nd story’s new meaning of “housekeeper” as home taker, to the setup and 1st story’s false meaning of “housekeeper” as homemaker. Since the punch was the last communication and we’ve accepted “housekeeper” as home taker as the correct meaning, we have changed our minds. Based on this new meaning, home taker, we now have the expectation that the punch and 2nd story will continue along that line of thought.
This change of mind causes us to reevaluate our assumed meaning of the setup and 1st story, which shatters our assumed meaning of “housekeeper” as homemaker, and we realize it was wrong.
Axiom 11 – within the framework of jokes, when the setup and 1st story assumptions are shattered, it results in laughter.
The roll of assumptions in joke structure is that we make assumptions about the meaning of something in the setup. This leads us to a false expectation which we accept as true, when it is not.
This allows the punch to surprise us with a different, yet compatible meaning of the same thing in the setup. This is possible because the setup contains one thing with two interpretations. One is an expected meaning for that thing in the setup and two is a different and therefore an unexpected meaning of the very same thing in the punch.
Axiom 12 – at the center of all jokes there’s one thing with two interpretations.
Ta-da, we have one-liner joke structure.
In my next article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 4: The Role of Assumptions – Shared Knowledge Jokes, I’ll revisit these axioms to explain the role of assumptions in shared knowledge jokes.