joke structure

Universal Joke Structure Explained 4:
The Role of Assumptions – Shared Knowledge Jokes

Greg Dean Greg's Blog, How to Be a Comedian, How to Write Jokes

In this article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 4: The Role of Assumptions – Shared Knowledge Jokes, I’ll give more axioms to help explain how the human mind processes information when it’s trying to understand shared knowledge jokes.

In my previous articles, Universal Joke Structure Explained 12, and 3I established that all instances of humor and comedy are fundamentally made up of jokes, and that they all have two parts. In one-liner jokes this takes the form of setup and punch, which create an imagined 1st story and 2nd story. These stories respectively conclude with an expectation and a surprise.

Shared Knowledge Jokes

When it comes to explaining Shared Knowledge Jokes, setup and punch are problematic. Therefore in this section I’ll be using the terms Part 1, instead of setup, and Part 2, instead of punch.

As established in UJSE 4: The Role of Assumption – One-Liner Jokes, in one-liner jokes the setup is performed, whereas in shared knowledge jokes, part 1 already exists in the audience’s minds and is therefore remembered.

Satire and Parody

These two genres are closely related in that the information being made fun of has been previously learned by the audience. In satire there’s only one point of comparison to the original, which gets placed into an alternative context. With parody, on the other hand, there are many points of comparison build around the same subject. To remember the difference, parody is derived from the word parallel.

For a better explanation of satire and parody, revisit Universal Joke Structure Explained 3: 1st Story & 2nd Story – Continued (Cont’d), where I demonstrated satire in a Waldo cartoon, and parody with a comparison between the curtain dress from the real Gone with the Wind to the Carol Burnett Show, Bob Mackie curtain rod version.

To unpack Shared Knowledge Jokes, I’ll continue to use Waldo and the Where’s Waldo puzzles as the existing information which forms part 1.

Waldo Cartoon – Part 1

joke structure


Where’s Waldo Puzzle – Part 1

joke structure

In the next article, I’ll bring in part 2 of the satire’s and parody’s unexpected, yet compatible versions.

Axiom 1 – expectations are a result, which implies prior mental processing of the subject information.

For the Waldo Cartoon – Part 1, we must be familiar with what Waldo looks like and who we believe him to be. For the Where’s Waldo Puzzle – Part 1, we must be familiar with the format and the consistent patterns of the illustrations. This information must already exist in our minds as shared knowledge, which is where satire and parody are born. Without part 1, the audience cannot get the joke of part 2.

Axiom 2 – our senses, perspective, and biases limit the information we take into our minds.

The deletion, distortion, and generalization in our minds about part 1 have already happened in shared knowledge jokes. That’s because our minds cannot know what happened before or after the moment shown in the cartoon or puzzle. We cannot know what’s outside the frames. We don’t know what Waldo does when he’s not in a puzzle. We don’t know what happens in the puzzles when Waldo isn’t present.

Our minds also keep us from imagining an alternative version because we’ve already decided what the cartoon and puzzle mean and what our expectations are.

Axiom 3 – nothing has meaning without context.

We have already accepted the context of a smiling Waldo dressed in red and white shirt and hat, blue jeans, cane, and brown shoes. He’s always in a setting where he’s difficult to find amongst the hoard of people involved in their own activities.

Axiom 4 – assumptions are made based on our past experience to fill in the missing, undefined, and implied information. 

Based on the context, we’ve made the assumptions that Waldo is happy being a cartoon celebrity and he’ll always be difficult to find in a crowd, and that other types of puzzle environments will have the same basic characteristics. We also assume he only belongs in his usual settings with a lively crowd doing their own thing.

Axiom 5 – assumptions are not real, they are imaginary, often informed guesses without evidence or proof, but accepted as true.

We’ve already made our assumptions about the cartoon and puzzle, even though we have no evidence or proof, yet we accept them as true.   

Axiom 6 – based on a context and a collection of assumptions the mind forms an elaborate, imagined story to organize the communication so it makes sense.

We’ve organized all of the previously processed information about Waldo – Part 1 and imagined a 1st story. This 1st story is about how Waldo is always smiling and is a happy-go-lucky traveler. This scenario consolidates all of our past experiences with Waldo so everything about him consistently makes sense within its context.

We’ve also imagined a comprehensive 1st story that represents Where’s Waldo Puzzle – Part 1. Waldo is in a fun place, with a big crowd, with many different kinds of people involved in specific activities, and some are wearing stripes to make it harder to find Waldo.

Once these 1st stories makes sense and we believe we know what they mean, we store them in our memory.

Axiom 7 – when we believe we know what something means, we store it in our memory, and accept it as true, until we find evidence to the contrary.

With no evidence to the contrary, we’ve already accepted the Waldo – Part 1’s 1st story and Where’s Waldo Puzzle – Part 1’s 1st story as true and then we’ve stored them in our memory. We are not surprised when we meet Waldo and see a different puzzle as they are consistent with our 1st story.

We have the expectations that in all future encounters with Waldo he’ll still be the same happy guy and he’ll be in puzzles with similar crazy environments. Therefore we never expect to be surprised.

Axiom 8 – we cannot be surprised unless we’re expecting something else.

The acceptance of the Part 1 assumptions, 1st story, and bogus expectations as true constitutes the joke’s misdirection. This means we’re already expecting something else and can now be surprised.

In shared knowledge jokes, the subjects and contexts of Part 1 must be known to the members of the audience. With the Part 1 expectations accepted as true, we can now be surprised by the Part 2 unexpected versions.

In my next article, Universal Joke Structure Explained 4: The Role of Assumptions – Shared Knowledge Jokes – Continued, I’ll further explain Shared Knowledge Jokes Part 2 by using axioms as they relate to satire and parody.

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