Saturday, January 09, 2010

Punny Stuff



Although Cookie Monster and Big Bird are household names, hardly anybody has heard of the Man from Alphabet. But based strictly on advanced publicity in 1969, the smart money would have been on the Man from Alphabet, more than any other Sesame Street character, to turn into the cultural icon. In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell thoroughly explains why this didn't happen-- in short, the character specialized in puns, and children are confused by puns (and therefore quit paying attention whenever he would appear on screen). Since that time, educational psychologists have learned that young children don't yet have the capacity to apply double meanings to words. They are also very literal minded, which explains why naming a monster that eats cookies "Cookie Monster" or a big bird "Big Bird" was a good idea.

Although Sesame Street has retained puns, they are obviously more for the benefit of their adult viewers than its actual target audience. But I'm not sure what the producers of Electric Company were thinking. This was one of my favorite shows when I was very young, solely because Spider-Man was a featured character (it's hard to believe that Spider-Man had existed as a comic character for only 12 years when he made his show debut, but I digress). I don't remember much about the actual show, but I have clearer memories of the Electric Company magazine, which I received, to the best of my recollection, between the ages of five and eight.

I clearly remember that in the middle of every magazine, there was a two page spread consisting of illustrated "jokes," which were mostly puns and plays on words. Many of the jokes started "What do you get when you cross..." In hindsight, it was odd for the magazine to center so many jokes around the concept of cross-breeding. (When I read these jokes at the time, I would picture a person walking past the two things/animals/people--literally "crossing" them). One that I actually remember-- "What do you get when you cross Superman and a chicken?" The answer "Cluck Kent" stood out to me only because I was obsessed then (as now) with superheroes.

I also remember to this day "Why did the bride cry at her wedding? A- Because she didn't marry the best man." I actually thought this was a perfectly understandable reason for a bride to be upset, and I puzzled over why the groom is not the "best man" at his own wedding.

Perhaps so many adults are so impatient with puns because they have a latent hostility left over from childhood--some deep part of their subconscious remembers what it felt like to not be able to comprehend the intricacies required to appreciate a pun. And unlike "grown-up humor" that grown-ups know to keep away from children, in these instances, the grown-ups actually foist puns upon the youngsters, unreasonably expecting a show of appreciation.

On the other hand, I'm not convinced that the animosity many people display when hearing a pun is actually authentic. When confronted with humor, we are conditioned to show a faux-reaction. We reflexively initiate fake laughter in countless situations. But puns (or any other form of humor that relies more on wit than slapstick) seem to prohibit this specific reaction. And this doesn't seem wrong to me--it would seem strange and awkward to reward many puns with a mere "courtesy laugh." Still needing some kind of response, we instead "groan." But this doesn't seem right to me. A clever or creative turn of phrase shouldn't be "rewarded" with disapprobation, even an ironic disapprobation.

So what would be an appropriate way to show appreciation for a witty statement? Perhaps we could follow the example set by three people in response to a pun I recently posted as a facebook status-- give a thumbs up and say "I like that."

3 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

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6:39 AM  
Blogger 冰冰有理 said...

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1:43 AM  
Anonymous Uncle Jerry said...

I remember a 7th grade english class where our text book discussed puns. Their theory was that when people hear a pun, they think that it is very witty and clever, and the first reaction is "I wish I had thought of that!".
So that is why groaning is a natural reaction.
After reading that, I realized that it is true for me when I hear a pun, but then maybe that is just me since I am continually trying to think of puns.
And in the vein of super heroes, have heard what you get when Batman and Robin are run over by a steam roller? Flatman and Ribbon! That is one of the first super hero puns that I remember.

7:02 AM  

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