What's funny? What isn't? And why do I never get a laugh when I tell that joke about the moose?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Spider's Game Initial Tally

Well, fellows and girls, the Spider’s Game contest has come to a close—or has petered out, anyway. There were some remarkably silly entries—I’m proud of you!

Here’s a tally of the entries, as of July 31, 2010.

Dr. Jay: 31 (plus five tentatively disallowed)
Mittleman: 20 (plus two tentatively disallowed)
JMeltzer: 12 (plus seven tentatively disallowed)
Jerry: 12
Alex: 8
Bensburg: 8
Risa: 5 (plus one tentatively disallowed)
M Bowen: 2
Katie: 1
David Frankel: 1

Please check your entries below, to make sure that you were credited with all your entries.

Right now, the following are in the running for worst (best) entry:

A face that launched a thousand ships is destroyed.
Bottom was disassembled.
A vegetable juice manufacturer is deviated.
A Banjo player is despicable
A dog with a hairlip is disembarked.

If you’d like to advocate for any of the above (or nominate another entry) feel free to do so.

You folks left a number of turns unstoned.

• A Freedom Fighter is deliberated
• A Norwegian escort is dilapidated
• A hair stylist is departed
• A guide is detoured
• A banker is disinterested
• A tennis player is disadvantaged
• A polemicist is distracted
• An electrician is discharged
• A simple machinist is disinclined (plainly)
• A female impersonator is decamped
• A cowboy is deranged
• An actor is defamed
• A civil attorney is distorted
• A prospector is declaimed

And on and on.

Tell you what. I’m gonna give y’all another 72 hours (to 11:59 PM on August 3 EDT) to post as many new entries as you can, with no restrictions. We’ll have a final total then.

The Game So Far


A lexicographer is demeaned.
An exorcist is dispossessed.
An auto-body repairman is defended.
A journalist is depressed.
A racist if denigrated.
An East Asia expert is disoriented.
A distiller is dispirited.
A bride is dismissed.
A firefighter is distinguished.
A camp counselor is debunked.
A transplant surgeon is disorganized.
A relief pitcher is disclosed.
A child molester is disabused.
A podiatrist is defeated.
A melancholy Shakespearean prince is disdained.
a Shakespeare scholar is disbarred.
A fisherman is debated.
A detective is detailed.
A gravedigger is disheveled.
A judge who ordered busing is disintegrated.
An actor is displayed.
A Giants outfielder is dismayed.
A batter is distanced.
A Cowardly Lion is discouraged.
A face that launched a thousand ships is destroyed.
A public defender is displeased.
An Italian pimp is disputed.
A celebrity whose planned honor ceremony is canceled due to scandal is distributed.
A computer geek is detected.
A train engineer is distracted* (not really the right word)
A magician is districted. *
A prize bull is disseminated. * (duplicate of earlier entry)
A babysitter is distended.*
A fast-food worker in charge of serving the people waiting for their drinks is disciplined.*

A jockey is destabilized.
Tony the Tiger is deserialized.* (I don’t believe ‘deserialize’ is a word’)
Bottom was disassembled.
An Earl is discounted.
Pregnant women are disseminated.
A Swedish auto manufacturer is devolved.
At the risk of being gruesome: A Cornellian is disgorged.
A racist politicians is denigrated. * (Duplicates Dr. Jay’s entry)
A medieval Irish scholar is distained.
An abbot is deprioritized.
A Hartford politician is disconnected.
A Yankee outfielder is dismantled.
A weaver is dematerialized.
A shoemaker is dissuaded.
A falsely attributed Shakespearean play is defoliated.
An Internet journalist is decompressed.
A girl scout is dispatched.
A restroom attendant is discommoded.
An Irishman is declared.
A herald is descried. (should probably be “decried”)
A wordgamer is deboned and demoted.
An advocate for adopting the metric system is deprogrammed. (I had to have this one explained to me)

A weatherman is disgusted.
An event planner is dysfunctional. * (posted two or more entries in a row)
An incumbent Congressional election loser is dismembered.
A bankrupt company is discorporated.
A GPS is displaced (and especially so when the driver does not follow directions). * (posted two or more entries in a row)
A censored pamphleteer is distracted. * (posted two or more entries in a row)
A lost chiropractor is dislocated.* (posted two or more entries in a row)
Prince Rainier of Monaco was disGraced. * (posted two or more entries in a row)
Tattoo is deplaned.
A particle physicist losing his European fellowship is discerned.
A remake of "Maltese Falcon" with a new cast is disastorous.
A sloppy church musician is disorganized.
A crashed Olympic racer is deluged.
A kid spared his mother's awful cooking is delivered. * (duplicates Jerry’s entry)
Tattoo, after given food in the Fantasy Island cafeteria line, is deserving.
A malfunctioning word verification blogspot system is disparshed.
A Tin Man is disheartened.

A lawyer is debriefed, of course!
A statistician is demeaned.
A skunk is distinct.
A dressmaker is depleated.
A lazy person is diseased.
A vegetable juice manufacturer is deviated.
A priest with the New York City Transit Authority receives disPennStation.
A civil attorney is distorted.
A vintner is deported
A farmer is distilled.
A diplomat is disconsolate.
A surgeon is delivered.

An illusionist is disappeared.
A private investigator is dislocated.
A bouncer at a club that serves alcohol is discarded.
A team player is disconcerted.
A tailor is dispatched, then.
A band that only plays music that other artists have already made popular is discovered.
A comic book artist who works between the penciller and the colorist is disinclined
A dog with a hairlip is disembarked.

A bridge expert is defenestrated.
A goose's butcher is dissipated.
A poll watcher is devoted.
A handbag maker is dispersed.
A cruciverbalist is dissolved.
A castle architect is demoted.
A Banjo player is despicable.
A dry cleaner is disdained,

An entomologist is debugged.
A model is deposed.* (was originally a plural, but she’s sleeping with the host)
A model-maker is deformed.
A logician is deposited
a puzzle is dissolved* (Duplicates Bensburg’s effort)

A pessimist is decanted.
A wildlife biologist is denatured.

A Factory worker is dismayed

A calculus professor is disintegrated.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Truth, Justice and the Comic Way!

There are times when I'm proud of nerds.

Fred Phelps, of the Westboro Baptist Church, has made quite a name for himself by speaking out against the evils of the world--especially homosexuality. He likes to lead protests at funerals.

He is, to put it mildly, not a very nice man.

Phelps and his crew started protesting outside the San Diego Comic Convention--not a bad choice from their point of view, since its attended not only by easy targets like science fiction fans, but increasingly by Hollywood types as well.

Trouble is--the nerds were on their home turf, and were ready to counterpunch.

Folks like Fred Phelps are ripe targets for parody and satire--and very few rabble-rousers can stand up to humor.

Phelp's (in)famous signs such as "God Hates Fags" were met with hand made signs reading "God Hates Borg" and "God Hates Kittens".

(There was a fellow in a Star Trek Federation costume holding a sign that read "God Hates Jedi", a sad example of inter-faith conflict in an otherwise unified effort).

A chap dressed as Bender, the robot from "Futurama", held a sign with a more general sentiment "Kill All Humans", which was doubtless a bit extreme, even for Phelps.

Many signs were even sillier--"Odin Loves You", "All Glory to the Hypno-Toad", and my favorite meta-message: A sign with the question "Is this thing on?"

You can see more about the event here.

Do you suppose we could hire these folks to follow Phelps around?

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The (D)evolution of Harpo Marx

Nothing kills a joke faster than explaining it. (Of course, explaining a joke stretches it out, so you have the twin experiences of a joke becoming less funny and lasting longer at the same time. But I digress.)

One can make a case that, since a good part of humor is based on surprise, to explain a joke is to rob it of its spontaneity. More generally, most good jokes rely on a certain rhythm, and any explanation is going to louse that up.

Thus, the experience of Harpo Marx—who went from elemental sprite to slightly retarded man-child in the space of a dozen or so movies.

This blog entry proceeds from the assumption that you have at least a passing familiarity with the Marx Brothers. If you don’t, I am not sure I want to associate with you, even via the Internet. Please watch several of their movies immediately.

For the rest of us, a quick review: The Marx Brothers were a comedy team of three – no, four –well, five really—brothers who emerged from Vaudeville to become arguably the funniest comedians of the 20th century. They only made about a dozen movies together—most of them in the late 1920s through early 1940s.

There was Groucho, he of the fake moustache, predatory lope, rapid fire delivery and outrageous puns. There was Chico, with his absurd fake Italian accent, maddening stubbornness and puns that made Groucho’s look good. There was Zeppo, the handsome straight man (who was actually the smartest and funniest one in real life.)

And there was Harpo. Ahhh, Harpo. No words can describe him, because he used no words. In turns manic and cherubic, Harpo was a silent force of nature. Movies started to talk just in time to make his silence golden.

Harpo was—maybe literally—magical. He paid only nodding acknowledgement to the laws of physics. He wore a tattered old overcoat out of which he could pull almost anything he wanted or needed. He was an early progenitor of magical realism.

At least, that’s how he started. But Hollywood, in its infinite drive to pasteurize everything, neutered the poor fellow.

It was done for the best of reasons—at least by Hollywood standards. After a couple of early successes, the Marx Brothers faded in popularity for a while. A very smart producer at MGM realized that very few people could take the Marx Brothers straight….they were TOO crazy, TOO anarchic. Dare I say it? TOO FUNNY. Not a lot of people can take whiskey straight, and not a lot of people can take their comedy straight.

So this very smart producer proceeded to make the Marx Brothers more sympathetic. The Marxes, who once attacked anyone and everyone equally, were suddenly protecting a rather sappy MGM hero and heroine. Where once they’d run roughshod over every authority figure under the son, now were being pushed around by second banana comics in uniforms.

And Harpo? Well, the directors started explaining his tricks. It wasn’t quite the kiss of death, but it was close.

For example: In an early film, a bum approaches Harpo and asks for a dime for a cup of coffee. Harpo, smiling, reaches into his pants pocket and pulls out a steaming cup of coffee which he hands to the puzzled bum.

By contrast, in a later movie, Harpo has to divvy up a large salami. He walks over to a barrel which conveniently has a hatchet on it and hacks off a piece of luncheon meat.

Get the picture? Harpo goes from having whatever he has in his pocket just because to finding what he needs. The joke is explained, and the magic is gone.

(Smiliarly, Harpo changes over the years from a fellow is chooses not to talk to a fellow who cannot talk. Weakening the character, making him more sympathetic. But still….)

This is not to say that the later Marx Brothers movies aren’t worth watching. Even Love Happy has more laughs than, say Hot Tub Time Machine. But there’s no question the Marx Brothers lost something more than Zeppo when they left Paramount.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Ethnic Jokes

Q: What is an Ethnic seven course meal?
A: A serving of Ethnic food and a six-pack.

You've got to be very careful about ethnic jokes. They re-inforce stereotypes and foster misunderstanding among people.

The trouble is--dammit, sometimes they're funny!

Often the jokes not meant to be hurtful--the people who tell them are often simply thoughtless. And, of course, if you're a member of the ethnic group, you're "allowed" to tell that type of joke. That's why black comedians can use the "N" word, why Jewish comedians
can tell jokes about how cheap and cowardly they are, why Irish comedians can tell jokes about their drunken families, etc. etc. ad nausium.

People ethnic sterotypes as a kind of shorthand. When you say "A Pole walks into a bar" it's a signal that it's going to be a joke about a stupid person. If the guy walking into the bar is Italian, it's going to be a joke about gangsters, and so on.

Because I really don't want to offend anybody, I try to tell ethnic jokes about "Ethnics" or sometimes "Aliens". (Also because I don't want to get beaten up...see my earlier entry about "Your Dentist") .

The first ethnic joke I think I heard was about Poles. "Pollack jokes" had great currancy in the 1950s and 1960s. Poles, according to the jokes, were stupid and liked to drink. Also, Polish women were particularly hairy.

Q: How many Pollacks does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Four. One to hold the light bulb, and three to turn the ladder around.

How do you like that? A Polish joke AND a light bulb joke, both at the same time?

Like light bulb jokes--or elephant jokes for that matter--the ethnic joke also benefits from a cumulative effect--if one is funny, two is funnier and so on. There must be a point of diminishing returns on such thing, but I suspect it's a matter of individual taste.

I think that "cheap" ethnic jokes probably predate Polish jokes. In a lot of the world, these are Jewish jokes, but in my neighborhood, they (and in most of New York, I think) they were "Scotch" jokes. (No, they weren't about whiskey.)

Here's one that HAS to take place in Scotland. It's a little off color, but bear with me:

A Scotsman, in full Highland outfit (including kilt) comes marching proudly down the hill and walks stiffly into a drug store.

He marches up to the druggist behind the counter, reaches into a pocket and pulls out a prophylactic. "I'm afraid this has developed a leak," he says. "Can ye patch it?"

The druggist looks at it, and says: "I suppose it can be patched, but why not just buy a new one?"

The Scotsman considers this. "I'll have to get back to you on that." He turns on his heel and leaves the store.

The next day, the Scotsman once again comes marching proudly down the hill and into the drug store. He marches up to the druggist behind the counter and says, "I've consulted with the Regiment, and we've voted to have it replaced!"

Although Ethnic jokes can often involve cheapness, cowardice or drunkenness, I suppose most Ethnic jokes are about how stupid a given ethnic group is. (Interestingly, stupid ethnic jokes are rarely told about Asians or Jews) In the US, stupid jokes actually are applied to individual states: Garrison Keillor likes to tell Iowa jokes, and of course everybody picks on New Jersey.

Q: How does a New Jersey native recite the alphabet?
A: Frickin' A! Frickin' B! Frickin' C!

(Had to clean that one up a bit....)

Of course, such jokes are tidied up for kids, which explains the emergence of "moron" or "idiot" jokes.

Q: Why did the moron throw the clock out the window?
A: He wanted to see time fly.

Since both "moron" and "idiot" are clinical terms, so it's possible that I'm being politically incorrect merely mentioning them.


For grown-ups, moron jokes have morphed into "blonde" jokes. We're allowed to make fun of blondes because we know that they're actually at an advantage in the real world....it's all jealousy, really.

A brunette, a redhead and a blonde are on the run from the police, and hide on a farm. With cops hot on their tail, they each climb into a burlap sack.

The cop pokes the first sack, where the brunette is hiding. "Meow! Meow" says the brunette. The cop figures it's a cat, and puts the bag down.

He goes to the second sack, where the redhead is hiding. "Oink! Oink!" says the redhead. "The cop figures it's a pig, and puts the bag down.

The cope pokes the third sack, where the blonde is hiding. "Potato! Potato!" says the blonde.

Finally, sometimes professions have specialized "moron" jokes. In the world of singing, blonde jokes are told about sopranos.

In the instrumental world, they're told about banjo players, or more often, about violists.

The conductor returns from lunch to find the principal violist in a furious fist-fight with one of the violinists.

"Break it up!" bellows the conductor. The cello section finally manages to separate the two.

"What's going on?" demands the conductor.

"This sonofabitch loosened one of my pegs, and now my viola is out of tune!" snarls the violist.

"It was just a joke," mutters the violinist.

"Well, it wasn't very nice," begins the conductor.

"You don't understand," howls the violist, "He WON'T TELL ME WHICH ONE IT IS!!!"

Anybody else know of any "stupid" professions?