Skip to content

Let's Get Serious About Jokes

Melvyn Tan
Melvyn Tan
2 min read
Let's Get Serious About Jokes

On this day in 2016, we visited Wiener Zentralfriedhof.

During that visit, a stop we had to make was Beethoven’s grave.

When we finally found it, I told the kids, “shh…. did you hear that?”

To which the kids replied, “hear what, dad?”

“Didn’t you hear the music coming from Beethoven’s grave?” I asked them.

“No?!” Confused, they decided to take a step closer.

I’ll get to that in a minute. But first, let me share with you something serious about jokes.

The science behind jokes

As it turns out, the ability to make and understand jokes requires a fair amount of cognitive load.

Janet M. Gibson breaks it down for us using the three-stage theory of humor.

When we see cows in a Far Side cartoon, we activate our bovine schema (stage one). But when we notice the cows are inside the car while human beings are in the pasture grazing, there are now two mental representations in our conscious mind: what our preexisting schema mentally represented about cows, and what we imagined from the cartoon (stage two). By inhibiting the real-world representation (stage three), we find the idea of cows driving through a countryside of grazing people funny. “I know about cows” becomes “Wait, cows should be the ones in the field, not people,” becomes an appreciation of the humor in an implausible situation.

The ability to “get the joke” requires us to see the conflict of our mental model with the one created by the joke.

Here’s one:

If all those apartments are stuck together to form one big building, one might WONDER why they’re called apart — ments!

via Wonderopolis

How you can use it

To use jokes in changing the perspective of others, let’s learn from Seinfeld.

Tldw, it is about taking something and making it the opposite.

Here’s one.

Why are teachers always the one with all the answers?

Our mental model tells us that it’s the students, not teachers, who are there to learn.

Because they had to learn everything.

The answer, instead, appears to be in conflict with our mental model.

When we laugh it off, we are in fact resolving the conflict between our answers and the answers given—that is provided we find it funny and not lame.

And as we laugh it off, the answer helps shift our perspective about learning. Because isn’t it true that the best way to learn is to teach?

The music from the grave

When they step closer to the grave and still not hear anything, they turn to me and said: “Dad, I don’t hear anything!”

“You still didn’t hear it? Let me tell you what I heard.”

They leaned forward in anticipation.

“I hear Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5. But it’s being played backwards. Do you know why?”

Now I really got their attention.

“Tell us Dad!” they pleaded.

“It’s being played backwards because Beethoven is de-composing.”


Melvyn Tan

Despite living the good life at midlife, I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. My aim here is to reinvent midlife, learn new skills, and understand how the world works post-COVID.