It’s All Relative

A Pencil. Because a vest has no sleeves.
October 30, 2008, 7:08 pm
Filed under: 1

The joke that I regard as my favorite is one that routinely predicts – with considerable accuracy – whether or not I will enjoy the receiver’s sense of humor.

The joke is an exercise in incomprehensibility and typically elicits one of two reactions: laughter or embarrassment. Laughter, at first hearing this joke, requires an ability to recast how we listen and interpret jokes as well as a flexible enough sense of self to see humor in our own limitations. The other reaction comes from a sense of having missed something and the absence of intelligence or humor sharp enough to enjoy that.

I was interested to figure out a bit more about why I keep telling this joke and so I deconstructed it in such a way as to ensure that it will never actually be funny again. However, this work does have the advantage of the fact that when you don’t laugh, I can explain why you should have.

This, of course, will not create laughter. Though we can perhaps hope for some guilt.

The Joke:

Q: What is the difference between an orange?

A: A pencil. Because a vest has no sleeves.

A Hypothesis of Humor:

The concept of humor that I would like to suggest and then use to analyze this joke can best be pictured graphically as an “L.” It is an idea continuing in a certain direction and then taking an unexpected turn. This turn must be surprising or unexpected, and yet it also must be, in some way, connected to the interrogative. The joke-teller must be able to link two ideas in such a way that is surprising but comprehensible to the joke-receiver. Surprise cannot appear in the face of incomprehensibility, the link between interrogative and response cannot be non-existent: it should be non-typical.

Knock, Knock jokes take a culturally familiar interrogatory and change the direction of it at the end, even as they rely on the unity of the convention to create the expectation that is denied. The appropriate response to “Who’s there?” is an identification of yourself and so responses that fail to do this deny or surprise expectation. They change the direction of the idea at the end.

So, any type of convention (the longer line of the “L”) that engenders expectation has the possibility of creating humor (the 90 degree turn at the end). However, jokes themselves have become a convention capable of creating expectations.

Some jokes use the idea of joke-telling in a backwards manner to create humor (though the poignancy of some of that humor has eroded from long use).

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” is a demonstrably obvious set up for a joke by asking a mundane and truly inconsequential question. Because the answer to the question seems impossibly unimportant, the answer’s relevance must exist entirely in its humor.

“To get to the other side.”

This answer is nothing more than an explicit description of the action previously questioned. Though posing as an answer, it can be mostly read as a simple restating of the interrogative. The answer provides no new information and therefore, no surprise.

The answer itself is as mundane as the question and so the expectation of humor – the convention of the joke – is denied and therefore, fulfilled.

Of course, this joke has become a convention in itself. It is its own parody and therefore lacks the reality of humor that it exhibits in structure. Still, it is an excellent example of turning the convention of joke structure back on itself, a concept that is vital to continue with analysis of the joke I have offered above.

To summarize: humor is the space between expectation and result and therefore is available wherever expectation exists. When expectation is denied or tweaked in a comprehensible manner – a second point in space that, upon reflection, is connected – then humor occurs.

We are now ready to examine the “Difference between an orange” joke.


First, let’s examine the joke piece by piece.

Q: What is the difference between an orange?

This is an obviously incomplete statement. ‘Difference’ as in contrasting two things with the preposition of ‘between’ creates an expectation of a secondary object to be compared. Such an object does not appear and therefore creates and denies expectations before the setup has even been completed. (Indeed, no setup is completed)

A: A pencil. Because a vest has no sleeves.

The answer ‘A pencil’ masquerades as a simple statement, intrinsically sensical by virtue of its brevity and confident tone as expressed in the period. The secondary explanation of “Because a vest has no sleeves,” again uses a preposition whose presence would normally indicate a relation between the two statements it links. Instead, the two statements are fundamentally unrelated. So, again, convention and denial.


Taken as a whole, the joke uses and denies conventions of structure in joke-telling and in the power dynamic between joke-teller and joke-receiver.

Denial of structure:

Separate from actual content, the structure of a joke is one that promises to relate two statements. In essence, a joke teller suggests: “I will denote two points and surprise you in how they are connected.” In this case, the two points are not connected. The assumed convention of two related statements is denied.

This is distinct from a joke without a punchline – which would seemingly also be denying the convention of related statements – because of the overall unity that is present in both the interrogative and the answer. The incomplete setup creates an expectation of an equally non-sensical answer which is also present. The incomprehensibility of the interrogative promises just as much nonsense in the reply and carries through with it in a surprising way.

The convention of a joke suggests related statements, but the setup for this joke suggests a convention of incompleteness that is completed.

Denial of power dynamic:

This convention of linked points also operates in a personal sense in the form of an informal power dynamic between the joke-teller and joke-receiver. The joke also denies this convention.

A joke-teller is someone who has an implicit contract with the receiver to pose something and follow it with a second that is related. Jokes can be poorly told or badly articulated and the reply may not be surprising, but the power dynamic is one that promises to provide two points that are – at the very least – connected in the mind of the joke-teller. Whether the joke is successful or not in creating humor, the promise of two ideas related in the mind of the teller is a basic underlying premise.

In this case, the unrelatedness of the two points is distinctly clear to the joke-teller and is a denial of the conventional power dynamic of joke-teller, joke-receiver relationship. Instead of a receiver being guided by the teller in the linking of two points, the receiver is revealed to have always stood on the same ground as the teller. They are equally in the dark about how these statements relate.

So, flowing from the denial of related statements, there is both a surface level of denial through the unlinked points, as well as a personal level through the denial of the typical power dynamic that would serve to link them.

Grasping the Humor:

So enjoyment of the joke can occur through several routes.

–         A recognition of the pattern of incomprehensibility present in the setup and punchline (it’s funny that each part of the joke is incomplete)

–         A recognition of the rejection of a joke’s implicit structure (it’s funny that a format that promises to link two statements has failed to do so)

–         A recognition of the reversal of the traditional joke teller, joke receiver relationship (it’s funny that –since there is nothing to understand – the teller doesn’t understand the joke either)

At the most basic level, the expected convention that is being taken in a different direction is the format, relationship and structure of telling a joke. Appreciating the joke requires the intelligence to recognize incomprehensibility and an ability to recast the terms in which we typically digest the cultural experience of joke-telling and the object of jokes themselves.

It is for this reason that I find this joke such an accurate barometer of a sense of humor. This joke works with expectations on numerous levels and therefore offers numerous routes to grasping its humor.

The joke denies intelligence or cleverness on first hearing. No amount of intellectual effort will link these points, instead finding the humor demands being able to laugh at your desire to do so in the face of clear evidence that you cannot.

The simplest humor in this joke is laughing at yourself, enjoying your total inability to connect the two points. Doing that requires being able to dissect the way that you listen to and process a joke, a skill that produces humor in many spaces where most people fail to find it.

In more detailed examination – like this one – the joke also reveals itself as possessing a high level of elegant and simple unity, denying conventions in all directions, even as it creates some of its own and meets them in a surprising way.

At some point in the future, I will ruin my other favorite joke about penguins in tuxedos. So there’s that to look forward to.


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