Last week my column covered the growing controversy about horse meat in food products around the world. At the beginning, I acknowledged that the piece would include a number of puns, first noting that Swedish meatballs would now be perfect for bridle showers. This is called a homophonic pun because the two words (bridal and bridle) are identical in sound, but different in meaning. Don’t fall asleep yet.
The column contained only four puns, but the first draft (oops, that’s another horse pun) actually included about six additional plays on words. My copy editor, Heidi, told me that was overkill and that I needed to rein them in. Very funny, Heidi.
She was correct, though, so I removed many of them. But it is fascinating how many people wrote me about the column and peppered their remarks with additional puns, some of which I had not thought of:
I was chomping at the bit to read your column.
Pony up and pay for that cheeseburger.
Column seemed rushed. Are you too saddled with other work?
A lot of lame jokes in that one.
The column really did stirrup my emotions.
Stop! You’re killing me! All these offerings reminded me of one humorist’s observation: “A pun is a short quip followed by a long groan.” But why does a pun often elicit such a response? I have a theory about that.
In any joke there is a gap between the information provided and the info required to comprehend the witty remark. For example: “The man who invented the Hokey Pokey dance has died. It took the family six hours to get him in the coffin.” To laugh at this observation requires that you know what the Hokey Pokey is and then have a visual image of the man’s legs and arms moving in and out of the casket. If the reference to the lyrics “you put your right foot in, you put your right foot out” were to be included in the telling, the joke would not be funny because the listener has too small a role in putting it all together. Basically, there’s too much information. And so my theory is that laughter is the reward you pay yourself for being smart enough to “get” the joke — by filling in the missing data. The proof of this theory is quite elegant: If you have to explain a joke to people, they will never laugh. Even if they then get it. At that point, it’s way too late for them to take credit for any of their own gray matter involved.
Now, here’s the problem with puns: There is no missing data. Most everybody gets a pun. All the information is right there. The punster seems to be broadcasting that what he or she just said doesn’t take any brains to understand it, so anyone will be smart enough to enjoy it. Even you. While most people don’t usually laugh at other people’s puns, they generally feel free to offer their own when the humor spirits move them. This is why a pun really is the lowest form of humor, unless you thought of it yourself.
A final suggestion from a Mr. Anonymous: If you do have a friend who is an incorrigible punster, my suggestion is to not incorrige him.