A Reddit user recent asked a question, “What’s the most intellectual joke you know?” The only joke that immediately came to mind was the classic, “How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Answer: “Fish!” There is also a line from Woody Allen during his stand-up days, “My ex-wife was a philosophy major at NYU. She and I used to have deep philosophical discussions where she would prove that I didn’t exist.” But that isn’t really a joke, and it is more about the abuse at the hands of his wife than it is about the nature of existence.
Katy Waldman and Will Oremus over at Slate provided An Idiot’s Guide to the Reddit Thread, “What’s the Most Intellectual Joke You Know?” Now, it’s true that by its very nature, explaining jokes is a thankless task. Here is a screamer of a joke from the 15th century when Europe was just rediscovering the joke:
The abbot of Septimo, an extremely corpulent man, was traveling toward Florence one evening. On the road he asked a peasant, “Do you think I’ll be able to make it through the city gate?” He was talking about whether he would be able to make it to the city before the gates were closed. The peasant, jesting on the abbot’s fatness, said, “Why, if a cart of hay can make it through, you can, too!”
As I noted last year, this is like, “Take my wife, as in ‘consider my wife’… Please! In the different sense of ‘take’ you see. I was implying that you should consider my wife but I was really just saying that you should take her off my hands! This is because I don’t like my wife very much.” So Waldman and Oremus can be forgiven if they take some of the fun out of the jokes.
Jean-Paul Sartre is sitting at a French cafe, revising his draft of Being and Nothingness. He says to the waitress, “I’d like a cup of coffee, please, with no cream.” The waitress replies, “I’m sorry, Monsieur, but we’re out of cream. How about with no milk?”
They point out that Sartre argued that the absence of something was still something. This is like in Waiting for Godot where Estragon says, “Nothing to be done.” It is the core philosophical idea in the play: how will we accomplish nothing until we thankfully die. But that is really not what the joke is about. You could pull Sartre out of the joke altogether. We delight in the word play: the server can’t deprive you of cream when she has none. Like most jokes, its just silly.
In general, I don’t find the science oriented jokes particularly intellectual. One is a classic that math teachers like to use to explain how statistics can be misused:
A biologist, a chemist, and a statistician are out hunting. The biologist shoots at a deer and misses 5 feet to the left, the chemist takes a shot and misses 5 feet to the right, and the statistician yells, “We got ‘im!”
Here our guides try to be funny by saying that the joke is “mean” as in average. I think it is more correct to say that it isn’t really funny, just interesting. Similarly, the following programming joke:
A programmer’s wife tells him: “Run to the store and pick up a loaf of bread. If they have eggs, get a dozen.” The programmer comes home with 12 loaves of bread.
This joke doesn’t have to be explained and I’m sure you see how the folks on the Redmond campus were laughing for weeks over this one. But as written, it isn’t correct. It is two sentences. If I were coding it, it would look like this:
Go to store
Pick up bread
That last statement is ambiguous, but it no more means to get a dozen loaves of bread as it does a dozen stores, eggs, or anything else that happens to be on the top of the stack.
There was one joke that I did not get at all, so let me explain it to you first. The Bechdel test is a way to gauge gender bias in fiction. It is really simple. In a novel, do two women ever talk to each other about anything other than men. I find this interesting because my first novel that I think has really great female characters does not pass the Bechdel test. I only have one scene in which two women talk together, and it is all about men—or rather one man in particular. The biggest problem is just that I rarely have women talking to each other. The primary characters are men. The second novel is even worse because two women never talk to each other at all given it is written in strict first person and the character is a man. But it’s food for thought.
Here’s the joke:
Two women walk into a bar and talk about the Bechdel test.
Not exactly a thigh slapper, but clearly intellectual.
My favorite joke I will leave alone because I don’t want to spoil it:
Is it solipsistic in here, or is it just me?
Let me only add that I am less and less solipsistic and more and more with Woody Allen’s ex-wife: it isn’t even just me.
Here are a few more jokes that I don’t think need explaining, but ask in the comments if I’m wrong:
Pavlov is sitting at a pub enjoying a pint, the phone rings and he jumps up shouting, “Oh shit, I forgot to feed the dog!”
It’s hard to explain puns to kleptomaniacs because they always take things literally.
Werner Heisenberg, Kurt Gödel, and Noam Chomsky walk into a bar. Heisenberg turns to the other two and says, “Clearly this is a joke, but how can we figure out if it’s funny or not?” Godel replies, “We can’t know that because we’re inside the joke.” Chomsky says, “Of course it’s funny. You’re just telling it wrong.”
Now that I think of it, the most intellectual joke is the meta joke about the nature of jokes themselves, “A priest, a rabbi, and a monk walk into a bar and the bartender says, ‘What is this? A joke?'”
Will reminded me of another Woody Allen joke, “I was thrown out of college for cheating on the metaphysics exam; I looked into the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”