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Home » Archives » June 2006 » What's a Half a Joke? Ke
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06/22/2006: What's a Half a Joke? Ke

A new Harper's magazine came yesterday. Yay! In a few minutes, I'm going to settle into bed with the puzzle. I love their puzzles – they're cryptics, like the British-style crosswords. Do you know these? You have to do all these different sorts of manipulations to the clue to get to the answer. The first time someone showed me one of these puzzles, I was in college. And for the first quarter-hour of the explanation, I simply could not understand what I was being told. The answers to the definitions sounded arbitrary, not uniquely-defined, amateurish. And then it all clicked into place. Oh! The puzzles weren't unsophisticated. They were, in fact, far more sophisticated than any puzzle I had done to that date. I simply had misunderstood the entire explanation because I had expectations about what I was about to hear. Sometimes we get halfway through something, and think we know where it's going. But we don't. It's more sophisticated than we thought.

Keep that in mind as we look at the following joke I heard recently on a rerun episode of The Simpsons. Moe is talking with his old bartending professor:

Describe your tavern in one word.

Is crap-hole one word?

Yes. If it's hyphenated.

Then I'm sticking with crap-hole.

The first two lines are a joke. But it's an old and familiar joke, so they're not really funny. Then the next two lines make the first two lines funny again. Hee! I love that at the half-way point, you think you're done, but that it's a bit lame and unsophisticated. And then you suddenly realize the writer is way ahead of you.

It reminds me of a joke we did once on Dinosaurs that went something like this:

If you looked up "happy" in the dictionary, you'd find a bunch of words that describe exactly the way I'm feeling right now.

This joke works because, just like in The Simpsons' joke, the audience thinks they know what the joke is when they're heard the first half. Then the second half surprises them with its frankness and literalness. It's like a magician's version of a joke -- misdirection and slight of hand.

It's a pretty easy kind of joke to write, too. Give it a try. The next time a really obvious joke occurs to you as you're writing a scene, see if you can adapt it into one of these.

Lunch: papaya salad and a Thai iced tea.


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