SchrŲdingerís Cat and Pavlovís Dogs:
Some Thoughts on Humor
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Consider a weird little joke:
A man enters a library and goes to the reference desk. He asks the librarian whether the library has a book titled "SchrŲdingerís Cat and Pavlovís Dogs". The librarian says, "I wonít know whether or not we have it until I check the shelf, but it rings a bell."
If you tell that joke to any one of most people, you will get a blank stare. It just isnít funny to them. But if you tell it to someone familiar with the scientific discoveries of the Twentieth Century, they will find it mildly humorous. Why?
The joke plays on the fact that the librarian has at least partly described the book, which sounds like a book about scientistsí pets, without intending to do so. The first part of the bookís title refers to an imaginary experiment that Erwin SchrŲdinger devised as a critique of the quantum theory, in which experiment a cat is both alive and dead until someone opens the box itís in and looks. This is what the librarian indirectly refers to when she says that she wonít know whether or not she has the book until she looks on the shelf. The second part of the bookís title refers to experiments that Ivan Petrovich Pavlov conducted with dogs, in which experiments he conditioned dogs to associate the ringing of a bell with the presence of food until he could get the dogs to salivate by ringing the bell alone. In this part of the joke the librarian imagines hearing a bell that evokes thoughts of the book, just as Pavlovís bell evoked thoughts of food in his dogs.
The humor comes from the observation that the librarian claims little knowledge of the book and yet she inadvertently describes it. Itís the incongruity that makes us laugh. It takes us by surprise and collapses our tacit expectation of whither the little story is going. We expect something serious and get something silly instead. Why does that make us laugh, however mildly?
Look at the origin of laughter in our animal nature. Laughter is simply muscular spasms in the diaphragm producing a series of staccato exhalations. In that way itís analogous to a sexual orgasm and likely for a good reason: they both release pent-up tension.
Take the case of Ooga the apeman. Backed up against a tree, heís facing a hungry leopard. He canít climb the tree Ė the lowest branches are out of reach Ė and in any case leopards can climb trees. He canít run and he canít fight with any hope of saving himself. He stands paralyzed by indecision and terror. His heart is pounding and his breath is coming in short, rapid gasps. Heís trembling all over. Suddenly he hears a loud crack come from above him, then a large dead branch falls from the tree and flattens the leopard while the monkey who precipitated the fall scampers away. A great sense of relief sweeps over him, certainly, but then he begins emitting a rapid series of hoots. His eyes are closed, his mouth is wide open, and he may even be stamping his feet and slapping his thighs Ė heís laughing.
Itís the sudden and unexpected demise of the leopard that has Ooga laughing. If the leopard had been somehow distracted and had wandered away, Ooga would not be laughing. Instead, his fear would fade slowly to anxiety and then to relief, allowing his body to adjust gradually to his changed situation. The physiological responses to fear prepare the fight-or-flight response, getting Ooga ready for frantic and strenuous activity. The sudden collapse of his fear when a branch falls on the leopard necessitates a more rapid release of the chemical tension in his body and the muscular spasms of his diaphragm, perhaps augmented by his stamping his feet and slapping his knees, provide the necessary release.
Pratfalls that remove a danger from our environment are still a part of our humor, but thereís more. Telling a joke doesnít eliminate a leopard, so why do we laugh at those little word pictures?
Did you read in the paper about the Nazi terrorist who was sent to blow up a bus? He burned his lips on the tailpipe.
Why do we laugh at that? Itís a simple joke that we can divide into two parts Ė the feintline and the punchline Ė and consider the parts separately to analyze the joke. Itís of minor interest to note that we use terms from the sport of boxing to describe jokes.
In the feintline we suggest something horrible. Nazis were the most detestable criminals of the first half of the Twentieth Century and the thought of a Nazi terrorist killing a busful of people arouses a feeling of anxiety. This is like the feint that a boxer makes to set his opponent up for the punch.
The punchline collapses the anxiety by revealing that the terrorist did something truly stupid and got himself hurt. But in order to work properly, it must make sense in some way. That way must connect with the feintline in accordance with some feature of its content. If you replace the punchline above with "Well, he got caught.", you donít get a laugh. The tension aroused by the feintline is relieved, but not in a way thatís funny. The punchline must rhyme with the feintline in a subtle way that touches on the themes presented in the feintline.
The theme on which this joke works is that of blowing up a bus and the humor comes from applying the double meaning of "blowing up". In the feintline the reference to a terrorist evokes the meaning of using explosives to shatter an object and scatter the pieces widely. In the punchline the reference to burning his lips on the hot tailpipe evokes the meaning of inflating something, such as a beach ball or an air mattress. The feintline presents a dangerous character who evokes fear and the punchline exposes him as a stupid fellow who doesnít understand a simple order.
Further, the reference to Nazis has its own double meaning. The original Nazis, in the 1930's and 1940's, were criminals who murdered tens of millions of people and immiserated many millions more. Their atrocities are well known and that makes them a frightening image. On the other hand, modern Nazis are pathetic creatures, notable for being social failures who complain about being helpless victims of anybody whoís different from them. Again, the reference to a terrorist evokes the former meaning and the reference to burned lips transforms it suddenly into the second.
As with Ooga and the leopard, the person hearing the joke is put into a state of anxiety by the feintline and then the anxiety is abruptly collapsed by the punchline. But in some jokes the feintline doesnít seem to arouse any anxiety. How do those jokes work to get a laugh?
I once heard of a professor at an agricultural college who irrigated an experimental field with vodka. He was trying to grow stewed tomatoes.
The feintline doesnít arouse any anxiety, so how is this joke funny? We generally think of college professors as serious people doing important work to improve our collective knowledge and understanding of the world. Thus, when the feintline tells us that the professor irrigated a field with vodka, we expect that he did it for a serious purpose. The punchline then tells us that the purpose was entirely silly, but because of the double meaning of "stewed" it makes a strange kind of sense.
Stewed tomatoes is a simple dish that consists of sliced tomatoes combined with spices and chopped celery, onions, and bell peppers and cooked. We also use stewed to refer to a state of drunkenness: "Soppy de Lush was thoroughly stewed when he staggered out of Al K. Hallís bar last night." That usage refers back to the vodka in the feintline. Apparently our professor does not understand the distinction between getting tomatoes drunk on the vine (as if that were possible) and producing the vegetable entree. He seems more than a little confused.
The joke introduces us to a serious person who is apparently conducting a serious experiment and abruptly reveals him to be a clown. In that fact we see the element of surprise, as we have seen in previous jokes. But there appears in this case to be no tension to be released as in the case of Ooga terrified by his confrontation with the leopard. The feintline does not engage our fight-or-flight response. Is there a different kind of tension that can be relieved by laughter?
What collapses in this joke is perceived social status. We grant college professors high social status because of their knowledge and understanding of their chosen fields of study, whether those fields are physics or farming. That status collapses when the professor is caught in an act of silliness in his own field. As social creatures, we take social status seriously and high status is important to us: itís not something we give up readily.
Part of our reaction to the joke runs along the lines of "Oh, I thought you were being serious." What is it about the sudden shift from serious to silly that makes us laugh? When we believe that someone is about to tell us something serious, we go into a state of heightened alertness, much as Ooga did when he saw the leopard. We donít have the fear, but we still have our nervous system in a kind of tension, a state of expectancy. The punchline subverts our expectation and releases the tension. Again, we laugh.
Letís try one more joke:
Question: What do you call sweet Hispanics?
Answer: Nice Mexicans.
Thatís a pleasant sentiment, but itís not funny. We pay off the expectation raised by the feintline with something that actually sounds reasonable. There is no sudden collapse into silliness. Now try this version:
Question: What do you call sweet Hispanics?
Answer: Sugar Cubans.
Now, thatís funny. The punchline plays on the similarity with the phrase "sugar cubes" and the well-known fact that Cuba is a major producer of sugar. The joke also plays on the fact that the word "sweet" refers to the taste of sugar and that it also refers to an especially pleasant disposition in people.
The feintline leads us to expect an answer referring back to the second meaning of sweet and that expectation is fulfilled by "nice Mexicans". We donít usually describe people by their taste, so we donít expect anything involving the first meaning of sweet. Thereís no collapse into silliness in that case, so itís not funny: itís just normal conversational make-talk.
On the other hand, the reference to "sugar Cubans" is silly. It does make a perverse kind of sense, so it sounds like our punster is trying to give us a serious answer but is simply missing the mark. The result is a little bit of silliness.
One feature to notice in these examples is their frivolity. The second joke seems to address modern anxieties about terrorism, but the other three donít seem to pertain to anything at all. Thatís not unusual. People seek out comedy: they search for things that will make them laugh. As noted, laughter relieves tension and we live our lives in tension. We live under more or less constant stress, so, for the health of our bodies, we seek out ways to relieve the tension consequent to the stress. Primarily we seek out comedy, contrived humor whose sole purpose is to make us laugh, because, as the Readersí Digest has so long put it, laughter is the best medicine.
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