May 5, 2009 11:23 PM   Subscribe

An odd question about puns as a form of torturous humor.

So, being an obsessive fan of dissecting humor until the patient is dead, I've been working for a while on a theory about puns. Puns, as far as I can tell, are not intrinsically funny to any but a select few. Most others seem to view them not only as bad jokes, which would be one thing, but on some degree actually painful. As someone who appreciates well-crafted wordplay (though one who has rarely, if ever, laughed at it) I can now recognize my reaction to be less " hey, clever!" and more, "ouch, damn, well played, god sir," as if the pun had struck me with an epee despite all of my best defenses.

In further support of this, I've noticed that the only times I've ever LAUGHED at puns were in the prescence of one or more people I've known who seem particularly averse to them - otherwise normal, capable members of society for whom puns don't just make them groan, but bring them to the point of near-fitful anger. In these cases, of course, use of puns increases exponentially, because everyone present knows that they're just being used to piss off the victim, which adds the element that actually makes them laugh-worthy.

So my question(s), I guess:

1. Am I crazy? Do others simply view puns as bad jokes, and not have this other painful reaction to them?

2. How common is this "uncommon" angry reaction?

3. What the hell would cause wordplay to differentiate itself from other bad jokes as far as the reaction one could expect?
posted by Navelgazer to Writing & Language (29 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
well, i don't know if you're crazy, but my boyfriend and i both love, love, love puns. i request him to use more puns. we are usually in the company of each other and not others. also, puns make us laugh, a lot.
posted by nadawi at 11:33 PM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. You're crazy, I don't know anyone who is actually angered by puns (in appropriate situations - if I kept punning on someone I have a business discussion with, I'm quite sure they'd be angered).

2. Zero observations for me.

3. Jokes are from Mars, Puns are from Earth.
posted by themel at 11:41 PM on May 5, 2009

I have a love/hate thing with puns. . . I (white guy) once made a (not offensive, just maybe lame) pun in front of some Asian friends and a girl told me to leave. . . I've noticed some cultures like puns more than others. . . "Not punny!" Groan.

I think there is a little resentment that sometimes comes with making a pun. . . it's like you thought of something clever, and are now tooting your own horn. People resent this, and then don't laugh. I think the angry reaction is common.

If you contrast puns to self-deprecating humor, or the kind of humor that gives a sort of window into one's mind, you see that there is nothing endearing about puns. Whatever not going to stop me anytime soon. I've got plenty of puns in the oven. Groan.
posted by No New Diamonds Please at 11:45 PM on May 5, 2009 [1 favorite]

There's a very, very fine line between a funny, wacky pun, that makes you want to keep piling on, and one that's just so awful that whoever utters it should be tossed in jail. A bad pun can be quite exasperating, but I doubt angry reactions are ever genuine.

One repeat offender is the comic "Pearls Before Swine." The cartoonist likes bad puns, but sometimes they're such a stretch just to get to it, it hurts. One example is when Rat talks about having a pet named "Peeve," which obviously leads to a not-so-hilarious misunderstanding about his "pet Peeve."

A good example is the pilot episode of the US Office, when Jim puts a stapler in Jell-O. The ensuing puns include "I've always been your biggest flan," and "You should put him in custard-y."

I guess the difference is if too much thought goes into a pun, or absolutely none at all...both result in bad pun-age. Actually... there are no good puns. Only good bad ones, and bad bad ones.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 12:00 AM on May 6, 2009

I rarely find puns funny, but getting angry about puns seems like quite the overreaction... I don't think I've ever seen that.
posted by lullaby at 12:30 AM on May 6, 2009

Response by poster: I guess I should clarify. While I don't entirely buy into this, I find a lot of truth in Scott Adams' "two of six" modeal for what makes things funny. Essentially, there are six elements which may be mixed and matched to create humor, which are (trying to recall)


The idea is that anything truly funny will involve at least two of these elements. One on its own simply won't work. Puns, on their own, work purely within the "cleverness" element. When they're funny at al, in my lifetime of experience, it's because the person making the pun is subjecting someone else to it - someone who didn't want to hear it, which adds the "meanness" element and allows for the humor. My roommate, for instance, will respond to puns with a smile or - depending on how clever the pun was - laughter, while at the same time intoning something like, "I will fucking kill you." And he's not even the type I'm talking about who gets really pissed about them. My roommate's reaction seems normal and reasoned to me.

What I don't understand, though I experience it myself, it psychologically why puns act as such a special irritant in this way.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:47 AM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pun for the Ages
Why do puns offend? Charles Lamb, a notorious punster, explained that the pun is “a pistol let off at the ear; not a feather to tickle the intellect.” Surely puns silence conversation before they animate it. Some stricken with pun-lust sink so far into their infirmity that their minds become trained to lie in wait for words on which to work their wickedness. They are the scourge of dinner tables and the despised prolongers of office meetings, some letting fly as instinctively as dogs bark and frogs croak, no longer concerned even with drawing applause; they simply can’t help themselves.
posted by amb at 12:48 AM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

If you enjoy overthinking humor you'll enjoy this paper. He specifically addresses puns here.

via this post.
posted by onya at 1:16 AM on May 6, 2009

This is a really good question.

I'm not terribly pleased with this answer, but I think it has to do with the ubiquity and unavoidability of puns. The possibility for puns is just everywhere in language at all times, threatening to break through into consciousness and undermine the meaning of what we say or write; I believe we have to make an active effort to screen them out when we are trying to say something or understand what is being said to us.

So when you deliberately make one, people block their understanding of it automatically, then become confused until they finally see where you're going, and then resent you for making a fool of them because it took so long for them to get it. And once the ice is broken by the intentional pun, it's hard to proceed with the conversation without falling through into the treacherous pun layer underneath ordinary discourse over and over again.

Children make awful/some puns all the time without realizing it ("throughout history, the Jews have had trouble with the Genitals"), and schizophrenics are notorious for treating them as if they have cosmic significance ('the therapist is the rapist, man').

That you only really think puns are funny when they are directed at someone else means they pass the Mel Brooks test for comedy: "Tragedy is when I get a paper cut on my finger–comedy is when someone else falls down a manhole and dies!"
posted by jamjam at 2:37 AM on May 6, 2009

Puns are torturous because they are language twisting back on itself and biting itself in the ass.
posted by jamjam at 2:42 AM on May 6, 2009

I think it's at least partially because part of the function of puns is to showcase one's own cleverness. That is, someone makes a plain statement, the listener sees a lateral connection via rhyme or spelling, and thus shows how quickly they can think.

Joyful, happy puns are things like a Marx Brothers routine, where the participants are just having fun throwing more and more elaborate wordplays at each other. "Groan-worthy" puns would be those "inflicting" puns you mentioned. Either way, puns are about being clever and quick-witted, and one needs to have a certain lexiphiliac attitude to enjoy them; some people will just find them cloying and "look at me" clever rather than seeing any humor in them.
posted by Scattercat at 2:55 AM on May 6, 2009

They are tortuous if overused, and funny when appropriate. Most folks appreciate having something unexpected set at their plate. For me, humor is most intense when unexpected. Sure, I like irony, satire, etc. but the double entendre and the even more rare TRIPLE entendre is particularly luscious. Try as I may, I can't help but make multiple associations as I speak and listen. Unless one comes up that can't be squelched, I usually allow 8 of 10 to die a dignified and silent death unspoken.

There was a theory I ran across once that suggested humor had its primal roots in pain. Puns do not, so I guess they are not humorous in that sense, but they are words at play; akin perhaps to the grand circles dogs run in when they are exuberant and frisky. Unless it's in the living room, who the hell gets angry at that?

Oh, and puns a decent barometer of intellect and a large vocabulary, IME.
posted by FauxScot at 2:59 AM on May 6, 2009

It depends on the pun, just like any other joke. If it's clever or funny, it works. If it's forced, it doesn't.

The best pun I ever heard was in 1994, when the UK Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) was split up. An email was sent round, inviting staff to a celebratory drink, to mark the passing of SERC. A colleague remarked, "so they're having a 'Fin de SERC' party?"
posted by salmacis at 3:44 AM on May 6, 2009

Marvin Minsky's take on humor is a good read.
While verbal sense-shifting can be funny,
and even useful, it is dangerous, and especially hazardous to be
subject to the fortuitous, meaningless sense-shifts that depend on
superficial word-sound similarities.
Like slapstick, which is visual. Puns hijack a basic process of your mind. You don't get to think about them, you don't get to guess the punchline. You hear it and BAM! Just by listening, your language processing centers get all messed up.

I'm sure it can be torturous to some, but I like them... they are like being tied up and tickled.
posted by zengargoyle at 4:18 AM on May 6, 2009

Maybe it's painful because the pun is sharper than the sword.

... sorry.

I'd say that puns, like any humour, will have people who react very well and people who think it's either unfunny or just bad. I have never known anyone to react angrily to it, although it's not beyond my imagination that they could. So...
1. You're not crazy.
2. In my experience, practically nonexistant
3. Overall, the only difference is in the people who find one funny and the other not.
posted by fearnothing at 4:44 AM on May 6, 2009

It depends on the pun, just like any other joke. If it's clever or funny, it works. If it's forced, it doesn't.

I agree, but there is a different quality in this to puns than other kinds of humor. If you make a quip but it isn't funny, it just dies. If you make a pun and it's bad, people want to kill it. I have said, to a marvelous friend of mine with a terrible weakness for erudite puns: "Good God, it has to stop." I would never say that to someone who was just telling jokes.

I think it's because a pun is a leap onto a different train track. Cognitively, a pun remaps a conversation into a different frame of reference in an instant. A pun works by seeming to be part of the conversation but actually entirely changing the subject. It's the deception involved, and the sudden change of frame, that gives people an unpleasant yanking sensation.

I don't know if this supports your theories, but I was noticing that Douglas Adams, whom I think of as having perhaps the friendliest humor I can think of, almost never used puns. Every other kind of playful humor is there, but not puns (can anyone think of an exception?).
posted by argybarg at 6:52 AM on May 6, 2009

I'm not sure I'm buying those categories at all, but even if you accept them, I don't think meanness works for puns. The groaning/"I will kill you" response to puns is just a common facetious response; I don't think it ever connotes real suffering or anger.

I do think bizarreness applies here. "I'm your biggest flan" is a bizarre statement when taken literally, and it's the overlay of the literal meaning, which you can't actually avoid cognitively processing, and the cleverness of the wordplay that makes it funny.
posted by yarrow at 7:04 AM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd argue that "I'm your biggest flan" type statements are not puns at all, since they don't have a double meaning. Is there a name for this kind of "word substitution", where successive statements replace a word with a similar sounding word on a theme?
posted by salmacis at 7:52 AM on May 6, 2009

The Hasty Pudding Theatricals at Harvard call that a "pun run." They have one in each of their shows. (Ones I've seen have riffed on names of undergarments and of women's colleges.)
posted by ocherdraco at 8:21 AM on May 6, 2009

Is there a name for this kind of "word substitution", where successive statements replace a word with a similar sounding word on a theme?

Um, isn't that the very definition of a pun?

Navelgazer, I'm exactly like you -- a pun has never made me laugh, but seeing others moan and groan about a pun (while the punster looks extremely pleased with himself) will make me laugh. You are not crazy (or we both are...).
posted by chowflap at 9:18 AM on May 6, 2009

No, I don't think that is a pun at all. To be a pun, the sentence has to make sense with both meanings of the word. Example: "I feel so strongly about graffiti in public toilets, I've signed a partition". A "pun run", as ocherdraco calls it (and it's as good a name as any I suppose) only really makes sense in one meaning. Private Eye covers often do this.

"I'm your biggest flan" is only a pun in a context like this: "I went to the pantry to fetch my largest cake. One of them said to me, 'Pick me! Please pick me! I'll be so happy if you pick me!' I said, 'why?', and it replied, 'Because I'm your biggest flan!"
posted by salmacis at 10:35 AM on May 6, 2009

I'm no expert, but on q3:

I think it has to do with social dominance: if somebody puns on something you say, they have kind of landed a blow, hence the phrase "no pun intended" to ward it off. Not to mention that puns (in English) are really not hard to come by. So bad puns are doubly annoying as a mild verbal attack and as a witless display of wit.

On the other hand, clever puns are only grudgingly appreciated as it still counts as a kind of attack or display, but the "victim" acknowledges that it was just too good to resist.

I guess laughing at someone else's pun is roughly saying "ha ha ha! you sure are smarter than me to say something like that", and that isn't somewhere that humour really comes from.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 11:01 AM on May 6, 2009

I think that some of what's going on here between pun-maker and groaning pun-recipient can be explained by my friend John's theory of humor. John uses the rows of seats in a movie theater to visualize his take on what's going on.

Suppose that the movie that is being played at the theater is entitled "Elephant Jokes."

Film begins (the event): How do you kill a blue elephant?
First row: "I don't know. How do you kill a blue elephant?"
Film: With a blue elephant gun.
First row: Laughter

So the first row honestly thinks that this silly, obvious humor is funny. Here is how the subsequent rows react:

Film continues: How do you kill a red elephant?
First row (tentatively): "With a red elephant gun?"
Second row: "Hold his trunk until he turns blue, and shoot him with a blue
elephant gun. Guh"
Third row: "With a red elephant gun. Guh."
Fourth row: "With a blue elephant gun."
Fifth row: "With a blue elephant gun. Guh."
Sixth row: "Hold his trunk until he turns blue, and shoot him with a red
elephant gun."
Seventh row: "Hold his trunk until he turns blue, and shoot him with a red
elephant gun. Guh."
Eighth row: "Fish"*
Film: Hold his trunk until he turns blue, and shoot him with a blue elephant
First, Third, Fifth, Seventh and possibly Eighth rows: Laughter.

So row 2’s humor has a twist that mocks the simplistic humor of row 1. Meanwhile, row 3 thinks that row 2’s send-up of row 1 is nonetheless still lame, and reacts instead by pretending to be row 1 with a wink and a giggle. Row 4 sees all that is going on, and finds row 3’s approach to be obvious, and prefers a deadpan response with few indicators of joking. It just gets more unmoored and surreal from there.

According to this theory, humor begins to break down in row 7 and is entirely relative to itself by row 8 because it is no longer possible to reference the port from which the joke sailed. It is therefore absurd, bobbing about at sea, keeping the edifice but abandoning the meaning.

The theory can be used to analyze one's own preferences, such as "I myself prefer spending most of my time in the first row, but if I can't find a decent film, I'll generally head straight for the fourth. In some crowds, I can hang in the sixth row which I really like, but oftentimes it's too sophisticated for me. I need to be really comfortable with others in the row to hang in seven. I grew up almost entirely in two and three."

* - refers to the lightbulb joke:
Q "How many absurdists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?"
A "Fish."
posted by umbú at 12:06 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

Lots of addlepated thinking here.

First off, there's not a single reason to dislike puns, there are many.
It's easy to be annoyed at puns because of their prevalence, their laziness, their obviousness. Think of punning store names and how they prompt the eye-roll.
But when Argybarg talks about telling his friend to stop with the punning, he's wanting to move back to a different mode of conversation. Saying that he wouldn't object if his friend were riffing jokes is immaterial—that would be a different mode of conversation, and were Argybarg in it, he'd approve.
They can also, like roughly any humor, be used competitively, and there's the sense of being fooled for having worked to decipher a sentence that in the end is only the set up for a disappointing joke. It's the same reason that a treasure hunt for a pack of gum is a let down. In that case, they're verbal practical jokes—or (im)practical, if you prefer. "Pun-ked," even.
It's worth noting that the word "pun" itself carries that derision. Puns we like we elevate to wordplay, puns we don't we regard as the petty points that the etymology alludes to.
Finally, there's the social reaction that torturous puns are enjoyed by a fairly sized audience. That lack of payoff can be the joke (puns as world's shortest, shaggiest dog), and people will groan the same way they do when a riddle is explained with an obvious solution.

This all ignores that there's a huge amount of positive, beloved and important puns. Hell, all of deconstruction and "difference" is built on puns undermining concrete meaning.
posted by klangklangston at 12:18 PM on May 6, 2009

"No, I don't think that is a pun at all. To be a pun, the sentence has to make sense with both meanings of the word. "

Prescriptivist on punning? Punt next time.
posted by klangklangston at 12:22 PM on May 6, 2009

A few years back there was a study done that used fMRI to examine the brains of people listening to puns. The scientists had previously found the area of the brain that, in most people, is activated by "normal" humor, so they knew where to look when they subjected their victims, uh, I mean subjects, to puns. Turns out that only about 10% of us actually find puns funny. So, throughout my life, all those people who I thought were just pretending to hate puns weren't pretending. This depressed me for a while, but then cognitive dissonance kicked in and my subconscious decided they were all just LOSERS! ;-)

I just tried but failed to find the study - I'm pretty sure I read about it in SciAm. Maybe someone who is not at work and/or with better google skills can.
posted by TurnedIntoANewt at 1:17 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

I see, salmacis -- thanks. Took me a while to wrap my head around the difference. "I'm your biggest flan" is more of a riff.

I can appreciate the cleverness behind a truly great pun, they just don't make me laugh. ("I'm your biggest flan" does make me laugh, because of the context of the speaker taking the piss out of someone else.)
posted by chowflap at 2:01 PM on May 6, 2009

To clarify, Salmacis is wrong. Puns are plays off similarity, which can mean homophones, near homophones, or even similar looks (for visual puns).
posted by klangklangston at 2:18 PM on May 6, 2009

Lots of addlepated thinking here.

Yes, of course-- but the real question is whether it is addlepated enough to have a chance of being correct.

Let's go back to schizophrenics for a moment. Schizophrenics pun a lot, and they seem to perceive the implicit puns in other people's language quite directly:

The unintentional puns of schizophrenia have been explained by Chapman et al. (1964). If a word has more than one meaning, it is likely that one usage is dominant. For example, the majority of people, in most contexts, would be more likely to use the word 'bay' to refer to an inlet of the sea than to a tree, the noise a hound makes, the colour of a horse, ... There is a marked tendency in schizophrenia to show intrusion of the dominant meaning when the context demands the use of a less common meaning. Chapman (1964) used a sentence such as 'the tennis player left the court because he was tired' and asked schizophrenic patients to interpret its meaning with one of three different explanations: one referring to a tennis court, one to a court of law and one altogether irrelevant. An analysis of responses shows that dominant meanings, here a court of law, intrude into the responses of schizophrenics quite frequently, but intrusion of minor meanings is less frequent.

In other words, I would say, schizophrenics tend to see the lurking puns in language because the higher order filter most people use to unconsciously block them out in favor of the most probable more conventional meaning is not working for them.

This is a lot like the currently accepted explanation of schizophrenics' failure to be fooled by the hollow mask illusion:

In the hollow mask illusion, viewers perceive a concave face (like the back side of a hollow mask) as a normal convex face. The illusion exploits our brain’s strategy for making sense of the visual world: uniting what it actually sees — known as bottom-up processing — with what it expects to see based on prior experience — known as top-down processing.

"Our top-down processing holds memories, like stock models," explains Danai Dima of Hannover Medical University, in Germany, co-author of a study in NeuroImage. "All the models in our head have a face coming out, so whenever we see a face, of course if has to come out."

This powerful expectation overrides visual cues, like shadows and depth information, that indicate anything to the contrary.

But patients with schizophrenia are undeterred by implausibility: They see the hollow face for what it is. ...

In healthy viewers, the illusion is so powerful that even when aware of the illusion (see video below), they are unable to see the concave face — the mind just flips it back.

That this difference is due to a failure of higher-order filtering in schizophrenics tends to be supported by brain scan data:

Dima and Roiser analyzed the fMRI data using a relatively new technique called dynamic causal modeling, which allowed them to measure how different brain regions were interacting during the task. When healthy subjects looked at the concave faces, connections strengthened between the frontoparietal network, which is involved in top-down processing, and the visual areas of the brain that receive information from the eyes. In patients with schizophrenia, no such strengthening occurred.

Marijuana intoxication
can also cause a failure to perceive the hollow mask illusion. Does it also cause an increased tendency to use and be struck by puns?

Baudelaire certainly thought so:

people completely unsuited for word-play will improvise an endless string of puns and wholly improbable idea relationships fit to outdo the ablest masters of this preposterous craft. ..

and he has been seconded by an endless string of other authors since.

To bring all this back around to Navelgazer's question, it looks to me like you have to turn off your high order pun blocker/filter in order to even get the pun. I think when you do this you also, for a moment, turn off higher order blocking of other things as well, and the end result is a flash of the underlying but carefully restrained hostility which is a part of of every conversation with an element of competition, leading to outcomes such as his room-mate "intoning something like, 'I will fucking kill you.' " Note the Tourette's-like "fucking."
posted by jamjam at 9:10 PM on May 6, 2009 [1 favorite]

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