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Humour is a trait unique to humans. It strengthens social bonds, gives our minds a break, and increases emotional intelligence. It’s also crucial in making life feel worth living, as our reflective minds can otherwise realise its futility and fall into ennui, indifference, and fatalism.
Joking is one of the primary forms of humour (satire, funny pictures, slapstick, etc., are other forms), and as such, it deserves our serious (pun intended!) consideration. It’s been studied formally, and you can glance at this article and similar ones.
For a while now, I’ve observed that although how one takes a joke is not entirely predictable, many a joke doesn’t go down well with even a regular person, who’s not overly touchy or humourless. The reasons are predictable — the person feels slighted, misrepresented, or offended on behalf of someone else, e.g., a friend, family member, colleague, etc.
People can misuse jokes for superiority, smartness, retaliation, etc. Humour like this is sad to see, for it is one of our greatest gifts for grace.
So, I decided to work out what makes a healthy, life-affirming joke.
(I’d drafted my story before I read up on the subject and found that what I’d written is essentially an independent take on two good forms of humour psychologists identify — affiliative and self-enhancing. I don’t believe there’s positive value in the other two types — aggressive and self-defeating, and they didn’t figure in what I’d written. I would question if humour should be lowered by including these latter forms. Perhaps they belong instead in studying other human psychological tools [pun intended].)
General Patterns of Jokes
First, I needed to understand jokes in general before differentiating the inoffensive ones. This is what I found when I went through a few hundred:
Every joke boils down to being a sentence, after all the lead-up, scene-setting, assumed knowledge, etc.
(Let’s recap that every sentence has a subject [actor or experiencer; mandatory], a verb [the action or state; mandatory], an object [on which an action is performed; optional!], and a preposition or dependent/independent clause [adding information about the subject, object, action or state; optional]. See the examples below.)
Subjects and Objects are of five types — Person, Animal, Place, Thing, Concept.
Verbs are essentially of two types — action (e.g., went, sat, ate, etc.) and state (e.g., is, was, feels, loves, etc.). Other terms like transitive, intransitive, helping, etc., only add nuance.
Every type of subject and object can be involved in a joke.
The humour of jokes comes from, in decreasing order of occurence— dependent/indepedent clause; preposition; action verb; state verb.
In other words, the context of the action/state of the subject/object is usually what causes the mirth. The next most common is the action or state itself being funny.
All jokes come from inducing confusion or strain in the brain followed by a reveal or self-evident resolution that releases feel-good endorphins. The confusion or strain is created through intentional distortion, misdirection, and induced mistakes.
Patterns in Nice Jokes
Next, I scanned about 500 clean and inoffensive jokes. Read these twenty as a sampling.
- What is the opposite of a croissant? A happy uncle.
- Which branch of the military accepts toddlers? The infantry.
- I have a joke about time travel, but I’m not gonna share it. You guys didn’t like it.
- Got a PS5 for my little brother. Best trade I’ve ever done!
- I finally decided to sell my vacuum cleaner. All it was doing was gathering dust!
- You know there’s no official training for trash collectors? They just pick things up as they go along.
- Where do you find a cow with no legs? Right where you left it.
- What’s ET short for? Because he’s got little legs.
- Never criticise someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticise them, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes.
- I used to be addicted to soap. But I’m clean now.
- What did the left eye say to the right eye? Between you and me, something smells.
- Exaggerations have become an epidemic. They went up by a million per cent last year.
- I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather did. Not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car.
- Two cows are grazing in a field. One cow says to the other, “You ever worry about that mad cow disease?” The other cow says, “Why would I care? I’m a helicopter!”
- I was wondering why the ball was getting bigger, then it hit me.
- Hear about the new restaurant called Karma? There’s no menu — you get what you deserve.
- Is it ignorance or apathy that’s destroying the world today? I don’t know, and I don’t really care.
- Did you hear about the first restaurant to open on the moon? It had great food, but no atmosphere.
- I’ve been trying to make a sarcastic club, but it’s been really hard to tell if people are interested in joining or not.
- A sandwich walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, we don’t serve food here.”
When I studied nice jokes carefully, here’s what I found.
Top 5 Subjects and Objects in Nice Jokes
- Ourselves (self, collective us, family, friends, etc.)
- Authority figures (teachers, doctors, scientists, parents, God, etc.)
- Anthropomorphised things
- Famous dead or fictional figures
Top 5 Actions and States in Nice Jokes
- Action: Tell (as said, shared, etc.)
- Action: Ask (as heard, know, etc.)
- State: Being
- State: Madness
- State: Defective
Top 5 Typical Prepositions/Clauses in Nice Jokes
This is the crux of the finding. Whereas the above two sets are more universal, healthy jokes mostly use these five ways to generate confusion and strain.
- Misdirection (of meanings and states)
- Distortion (most often of words)
There are countless pleasant jokes, but if we multiply the three lists above, we can make or check potentially 125 combinations of subjects/objects, actions/states, and contexts to make or check our nice jokes.
Observed Examples of Healthy Jokes
- Our children make good subjects for cute jokes as everyone knows we love them, and we have a right to get back at them a bit for all the trouble they cause us. E.g., my daughter hates chikoos (a common fruit in India), which we like, so I fool around calling it her favourite fruit, or one that she loves, or say, “Today is ‘the’ day you fall in love with chikoos!”, etc. Or how our kids agree to something other than Dominos pizza (their everlasting favourite) on Friday nights only to be kind to their poor old parents.
- Accepted quirks or eccentricities famous in our family members and friends can be exaggerated to a nice effect. E.g., “You, my friend are such a big foodie, the only reason you exercise is so you can eat more!”; “Our colleague is so good at making ordinary tasks seem like world-class achievements that investors would invest 50M dollars more if they went by his announcements!”
- Situations make for excellent inoffensive jokes. E.g., “India is in a club with its sworn enemies Pakistan and China now! It’s abstaining from condemning Russia for attacking Ukraine!”; or, “My important document filing system is so secure, even I can’t find what I’m looking for!”
- Movies and TV series make for great opportunities for nice jokes. E.g., “So many characters are being killed off in Game of Thrones soon no one would be left to rule!”; “I’ve nicknamed a rather romantic series I watch with my wife called ‘Sweet Magnolias’ as ‘Sickly-sweet’.”
- Famous people, dead or alive, are a motherlode of clean jokes. E.g., we say “The IQ of the Gandhi family leaders has dropped steadily from Nehru to Indira to Rajeev and finally become zero with Rahul!”; “Trump may deport ‘Red Indians’ to India and make Columbus right after 430 years!”
- Plants and inanimate things are superb for gentle chuckles. E.g., “I call our money plant a ‘glorified weed’ as it keeps growing on plain water and almost no light!”; And I declare, “Our home has a Black Hole somewhere into which staplers, erasers, rulers, nail cutters, etc., disappear.”
I tend towards anthropomorphising, exaggeration and irony in the inoffensive jokes I crack. How about you?
Mapping the Example Jokes to the Patterns
To illustrate, I’ve mapped our sample jokes to our categories in italics below.
- What is the opposite of a croissant? A happy uncle. — Anthropo-being-distortion
- Which branch of the military accepts toddlers? The infantry. — Ourselves-tell-distortion
- I have a joke about time travel, but I’m not gonna share it. You guys didn’t like it. —Ourselves-tell-misdirection
- Got a PS5 for my little brother. Best trade I’ve ever done! — Ourselves-tell-misdirection
- I finally decided to sell my vacuum cleaner. All it was doing was gathering dust! — Anthropo-tell-distortion/irony
- You know there’s no official training for trash collectors? They just pick things up as they go along. —Authority figure-tell-distortion/irony
- Where do you find a cow with no legs? Right where you left it. — Animal-ask-misdirection
- What’s ET short for? Because he’s got little legs. — Famous person-ask/defective-misdirection
- Never criticise someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticise them, you’ll be a mile away, and you’ll have their shoes. — Ourselves-tell-misdirection
- I used to be addicted to soap. But I’m clean now. — Ourselves-tell/defect-irony
- What did the left eye say to the right eye? Between you and me, something smells. —Anthropo-tell/defect-distortion
- Exaggerations have become an epidemic. They went up by a million per cent last year. —Ourselves-tell-exaggeration
- I want to die peacefully in my sleep like my grandfather did. Not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car. — Authority figure-tell/being-contrast
- Two cows are grazing in a field. One cow says to the other, “You ever worry about that mad cow disease?” The other cow says, “Why would I care? I’m a helicopter!” — Animal-tell/defect-misdirection
- I was wondering why the ball was getting bigger, then it hit me. —Ourselves-tell/defect-misdirection
- Hear about the new restaurant called Karma? There’s no menu — you get what you deserve. — Place-ask-irony
- Is it ignorance or apathy that’s destroying the world today? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. — Ourselves-ask-misdirection/irony
- Did you hear about the first restaurant to open on the moon? It had great food, but no atmosphere. — Place-ask-misdirection/irony
- I’ve been trying to make a sarcastic club, but it’s been really hard to tell if people are interested in joining or not. — Ourselves-tell-irony
- A sandwich walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, we don’t serve food here.” — Anthropo-tell-distortion/irony
What to Avoid for Nice Jokes
Jokes are surprisingly powerful. They change our mood and influence us and create bonds and beliefs.
Jokes that are nice and clean for everyone don’t make any human feel bad or uncomfortable in the short and long term, or encourage bad behaviour towards others.
Nice jokes are good because they avoid
- Insults and discouragement
- Bigotry and discrimination
- Aggression and Violence
- Sexual references
- Swear words
- Fatalism, apathy, hopelessness, and defeatism
If a joke feels in poor taste or negative, we can quickly identify why using these anti-patterns. And it helps us get better with our healthy jokes.
I grant joking should be spontaneous, and we shouldn’t kill the fun by making it artificial. But we’ve developed the ability to reflect for a purpose. Wisdom lies in not just being smart but being smart thoughtfully. And there’s nothing especially sacrosanct about humour. Like any other positive human trait, it serves the psychological and social purposes of the Life Instinct, and we can improve it.
Mind you; it’s not an exact science. Despite the list, one can still cross a line and offend someone. Knowing this line is an art and skill one should develop. Its foundation is the inculcation of emotional intelligence, which comes from observation, reflection, empathy, communication, psychological insight, patience, and balance.
So, let’s understand the dynamics of joking and add wholesome joy to everyone’s life by doing it mindfully. Soon it’ll become second nature to us, unless we’re already good at it, which is a great trait.
Cheerio, amigos and amigas.