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

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I is for Intelligence


The Theory of Relativity? From this Einstein makes a living?
There ARE smart jokes, you know. Nowhere near as many as there are dumb jokes, but they do exist. They’re often not laugh out loud funny—we smile with appreciation at the cleverness of our protagonist, but the jokes rarely generate a true guffaw.
I’ve seen this story set in a lot of locations—but for the purposes of this story, we’ll place it in Germany, back in the early 60s, when it was divided into democratic Western Germany (yay!) and Communist Eastern Germany (boo!)

It happened that there was a poor man in Eastern Germany who had found employment in Western Germany. So every morning, the man would cross from East Berlin to West, and every evening, he would return from West Berlin to East. And every day he would be pushing a wheelbarrow full of manure.

Eventually, a guard became suspicious. Sure, people were paid better in West Berlin, but this man was showing signs of prosperity. He was getting rounder! He was even wearing better clothes.

Something was going on. The guard took to stopping the man on his way home. He searched the man, searched his clothes, and then searched the manure. Nothing. Every day for nearly 20 years, the guard would search the man, his clothes and the manure. Even with the aid of a microscope, he found nothing.

Eventually, the Cold War ended, the Berlin Wall came down, and the guard retired. A few months later, the guard was in a bar having a beer. He looked up to see his old nemesis entering the bar. He called the man over and bought him a drink.

“Listen,” he said, “The Cold War is over now, and we’re all Germans together. You can tell me the truth. You were stealing something, weren’t you?”

“That’s right,” admitted the man.

“I knew it!” said the old guard. “After all this time, tell me: What were you stealing.”

The man grinned. “Wheelbarrows!”

Somewhat more common are the jokes that exploit the intelligence of the protagonist—but only to prove that deep down, he’s no brighter than the rest of us. Nerd jokes fall into this category, but usually if the protagonist of the joke is any kind of scientist, you can bet the laugh is going to be on him:
At the town’s most popular ice cream parlor, the owner noticed that a fellow would come in every Thursday evening and order TWO ice cream sundaes. The man would carefully place one at an empty place at his table, and eat the other as he watched the first one melt. After a month or so, the owner couldn’t stand it any longer.

“Listen,” he told the man. “I’ve watched you come in every Thursday and order an ice cream sundae you never eat. What gives?”

“Well,” the customer explained. “I’m a physicist. And I know that, according to quantum mechanics, there is a small but measurable chance that a beautiful woman will spontaneously generate in the chair next to me. I figure that, if that woman likes ice cream, she’ll appreciate the ice cream sundae. And then I might be able to talk to her.”

“But look,” said the owner, “there are dozens of beautiful women in here. Why don’t you buy one of THEM an ice cream sundae—then maybe SHE would talk to you.”

“Sure,” says the physicist. “But what are the chances of THAT happening?”

Most often, thought, smart jokes actually reflect the idea that the smart people are in really pretty dumb. If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons, the protagonists have high intelligence but low wisdom. Or, to put it a bit more ethnically: They’re lacking a yidishe kopf.
The family’s son was a dolt. There was no doubt about it. No matter how life slapped him in the face, he never gained an ounce of sense. Finally, the desperate family sent the son to Harvard, in the hopes that the great University could knock some sense into his head.

At the end of four years, the son finally returned.

“So tell me, my son,” says his father. “Have you learned?”

“Yes, father,” he said. “I have learned.”

The father goes into the next room and takes off his wedding ring. He holds it in his clenched fist, and goes back to his son. “Tell me, my son,” he says. “What do I have in my hand?”

His son ponders. “Well,” he says. “Let’s see. I can tell by my studies of anatomy that you’re holding something round.”

His father is quite impressed by this. “Go on,” he says.

The son continues. “Furthermore, from my studies of geometry, I can tell that it has a hole in the middle.”

His father is beside himself with joy. “Yes!”

“Therefore,” concludes the son, “I deduce that you are holding a wagon wheel.”


  1. Good to see you back. I was getting a little worried. How's your father-in-law doing?

  2. An engineer, physicist and mathematician are at a science conference. Late one night, a fire breaks out in the hotel.
    The engineer wakes up, runs to the bathroom with the ice bucket and splashes as much water as possible all over the room to douse the fire and goes back to bed soaking wet.
    The physicist wakes up, carefully calculates the rate of the fire's expansion, looks up the fire rating of the drywall, drapes and furniture in the room, establishes how much water would be required to extinguish the blaze including the amount of time required to obtain the water, goes into the bathroom with his graduated cylinder, measures out precisely the correct amount of water (bottom of the meniscus!), extinguishes the blaze and goes back to bed, just a little wet.
    The mathematician wakes up, duplicates the physicist's work, says, "a solution exists", and goes back to bed.


  3. Hello! Thanks for sharing my math/physics joke! (The ice cream parlor one.)

    You might have heard that one on "The Big Bang Theory" (Penny calls it "the best science joke on the Internet"), and you might have read that the great physicist George Smoot brought the joke to "TBBT."

    Many fewer people know I wrote it. Which makes it very difficult for me to scare up recruits for my science joke blog!

    All best,
    Kevin L. Schwartz

  4. Oops, I forgot to allow notifications.

    I also didn't clarify that my science joke blog can easily be found on Facebook.