Punny, yes, but funny?

As a mission statement, it’s admirably clear.

The Humor Research Lab (aka HuRL) at the University of Colorado Boulder
is dedicated to the scientific study of humor,
its antecedents,
and its consequences.

How does HuRL do it?

The lab’s theoretical and methodological base
is in the interdisciplinary fields
of emotion and judgment and decision making,
with an emphasis in social and cognitive psychology.

Good news: To understand the Lab’s conclusions you don’t need to get remedial training in “emotion and judgement and decision-making” or take what for most of us would be a first course in social and cognitive psychology. Instead, you can watch this 12-minute TEDxBoulder talk or you can just accept the summary of what makes some things funny in their own words: benign violations.

Benign in this context just means “not dangerous,” either inherently or due to its source, and violations can be of social or moral norms or of any other expectation of how the world is or should be. Maybe that’s why little kids in good families laugh so much: The world is constantly overturning their expectations, but not in a truly scary way.

Dr. McGraw of HuRL identifies one more requirement for something to be funny: We have to “get” both the violation and its benign nature simultaneously. There’s a reason that jokes end with the punchline, violating — at the last possible second — the listener’s expectations about what was coming next.

This brings us to puns: wordplay that violates linguistic norms in some way. While there are professional punsters who prepare their routines and practice punning on different topics (as documented here), some people just wing it. Me, I don’t think in punny terms, which is likely why I’m a tepid fan. I understand most puns and admire their creativity and wit, but they don’t usually make me laugh. The ones that do are the ones that catch me completely by surprise, unlike all those hair salons with punny names.

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These are cute the first time, maybe, but on your tenth visit they’re like that irritating co-worker who tells the same joke at every TGIF gathering. Yes, I have heard this one. Stop, already.

And that, finally, brings us to what started this.

These are clever, but they wouldn’t age well in my house. Your results may vary.

On the other hand, I don’t want to go all black and white on this (even though the designer did). After all, things don’t have to be all or muffin.

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17 Responses to Punny, yes, but funny?

  1. Tom Watson says:

    I have a friend who is a master at turning phrases into puns. I never got the hang of it, as, apparently, neither did you. Is there a Puns course we can take? Something that turns nuthin’ into all?

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Tom – Courses, I don’t know. There are books written about punsters and — like most things — it seems to be a combination of innate talent and concerted effort to improve. I think the experts/competitors go through deliberate practice sessions, like a musician’s jam session, sort of, to hone the pun bump.

      • barbara carlson says:

        Yep — read a whole book on punning by a guy who wanted to learn how. Mostly, if you can get the audience to groan, you are winning. Laughing is secondary but they do that, too. And lots of practice. There are HUGE competitions — & big-name pun stars who take it all — all over the U.S. A circuit. But not that often. And, yes, some people are born with the pun-gene. Yawn.

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Barbara – It’s amazing, isn’t it? For almost any activity you can name, someone does it professionally. Or competitively, at least.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    I had a colleague for 15 years of so who could turn any conversation into an endless succession of puns. It was very clever, rarely productive, and often irritating. Hmmm… Come to think of it, I don’t remember him ever telling a joke. I wonder what the difference is.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Well, this site offers definitions more or less in line with a joke being an amusing story, and a pun being “a joke or type of wordplay in which similar senses or sounds of two words or phrases, or different senses of the same word, are deliberately confused.” That seems about right to me. I’d say most jokes have narrative structure; witticisms and puns do not.

  3. Jim Taylor says:

    And then there are the jokes which exist as extended puns. The teller requires several convoluted minutes to get to the final line:
    “It’s a long way to tip a Rare.”
    “It’s a knick-back, Patty Wack — give the frog a loan! His old man’s a Rolling Stone.”
    Make up your own narrative that leads to those lines.

    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Indeed. Also, from university days, “Pardon me ma’am, is that your gat in Una’s tutu?”

      • Ian Hepher says:

        Or…”Pardon me, Roy, is that the cat who chewed your new shoes.”

        • Isabel Gibson says:

          Ian – Hahaha. Yes, the Big Guy reminded me of that one after the fact. Maybe I don’t travel in the right circles, but I haven’t heard one of these long-lead-up puns in, well, a long time.

  4. While I am fond of puns, the surprise component is definitely missing if they become names or slogans. Only unexpected puns count. In store names and cookware, and other titles, they quickly become extraordinarily boring, even, as you say, irritating.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Judith – I find it interesting that some marketeers don’t share our sensitivity to pun repetition. Why isn’t everyone like us? 🙂

  5. Ian Hepher says:

    As a lifelong and unredeemable purveyor of puns, I must confess. 1) I like my own puns best. 2) I love the laughter generated by an in-the-moment spontaneous pun. 3) I actually can’t help myself. To paraphrase someone (Gen. Patton? Yogi Berra?) it’s a poor sort of person who can’t make a word mean more than one thing.

    • barbara carlson says:

      Some U.S. president said, “You can’t be very smart if you only know one way to spell a word.”
      Right up there with “What have future generations ever done for me” — George W. Bush.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Ian – Changing out “puns” for “things I fondly think of as witticisms”, I’m with you on all 3 points.

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