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Designing a Joke

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How many of each animal did George W. Bush bring with him on the ark?

This sentence was presented as an illustration in a psychology book I am reading (Thinking Fast and Slow). There was no punchline provided; in fact, it wasn't intended as a joke at all. It was part of an illustration of mental priming but the author suggested that it sounded like the setup for a joke and that was an invitation I couldn't resist. Already in the mindset for analyzing the human thought process and, being a particular observer of the nature of creativity, I took it as the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the relationship of creativity and humor and expose the process behind both.

In order to analyze the nature of humor, I needed to come up with some punchlines, and here is what I came up with initially:

None. He figured the stork would just bring more after the floods receded.
None. Dick Cheney told him he needed 'elbow room'.
None. Dick Cheney didn't want to step in any animal shit.
None. Dick Cheney doesn't trust animals.
One. He was worried about over-crowding and didn't think anyone would bother counting.
One. Dick Cheney told him he'd 'take care of the rest'
One. He wasn't about to raise taxes to pay for a bunch of extra animals.
One. Because nobody wants a sausage-fest.
Three. Because: 'That way he wouldn't have to lift the tail and check every gosh darn animal'.

The first step in creating these punchlines was answering the question presented by the setup. Clearly there had to be a quantity and I started with 'none' and worked my way up until the higher numbers didn't seem to create any more opportunities. Next, for the joke to be funny, a reason for the answer had to be provided. The key is giving a reason that makes sense (contains a logical connection), but in an unexpected way. The more 'sense', the better, and the more unexpected, the better. Bonus points for multiple connections and/or the content being a little 'naughty' (just a pinch of embarassment can be a good catalyst for humor). 
Now, let's assess the punchlines. Keep in mind that while assessing it is necessary to imagine each punchline in seclusion.

None. He figured the stork would just bring more after the floods receded.
Here, the premise is that Bush understands the point of the task but doesn't understand the more fundamental truth of where babies come from. This implies a ridiculous degree of ignorance, particularly in the realm of sexuality. This also implies irony consistent with his track record as president - his intentions are in the right place but he so terribly understands the situation that he has failed spectacularly.
Mechanics: irony, exaggerated trait (stupidity)

None. Dick Cheney told him he needed 'elbow room'.
The implications here are that: Dick Cheney is present, Dick Cheney is in charge, and Dick Cheney's slightest whim takes precedence over the fate of all the animals in the world. Three connections in rapid succession.
Mechanics: exaggerated traits (selfishness, passiveness)

None. Dick Cheney didn't want to step in any animal shit.
The more direct the joke is, the less thought that is required to 'get' it; in other words, the faster it 'hits', the more effective it will be. If a mind takes a while to make the connection, the expectation that the connection will be brilliant only increases. Ideally, the connections made to 'get' a joke should take as little time as possible. In this case, the punchline is more direct version of the previous punchline. By providing a more defined reason (elbow room may be a little vague), the joke requires less mental validation. It still isn't expected but it has the benefit of being more visceral (and thus easier to visualize). The risk is that a short direct joke, may not be leading enough. The same mechanics were used here as above. 
Mechanics: exaggerated traits (selfishness, passiveness)

None. Dick Cheney doesn't trust animals.
This is similar to the previous two but the connection is less logical and less expected. Dick Cheney's selfishness (the known connection) is obfuscated by the unverifiable implication that he doesn't 'trust' animals. This is plausible given what is known of Cheney (he is shifty and paranoid) but has never been publically accused of him. This joke succeeds if the audience is willing to imagine Cheney not trusting animals, but fails if they are unwilling.
Mechanics: exaggerated traits (selfishness, paranoia, passiveness)

One. He was worried about over-crowding and didn't think anyone would bother counting.
This is similar to the stork punchline with the addition of the laziness trait. The punchline is weakened by the 'over-crowding' concern as this doesn't imply any stereotypical Bush trait. The punchline might be better written as: One. Gathering animals is hard work and who's counting anyway. This still maintains the irony, stupidity and laziness and removes the possible 'false connection' the brain could get hung up on trying to connect 'over-crowding' to Bush.
Mechanics: irony, exaggerated trait (stupidity, laziness)

One. Dick Cheney told him he'd 'take care of the rest'
This punchline fully embraces the risk of a more tenuous connection in favor of being more unexpected. It also gambles that the audience bears a dislike for Cheney. On first pass, no obvious connections exist - the fact that Bush is being passive to Cheney is obvious but this clearly isn't enough to carry the joke. The brain takes a second pass, this time analyzing the hint provided by the quotes. 'Take care of the rest' still doesn't make sense by itself and the brain must now revisit the set-up: Why must two of each animal be carried in the ark? Two animals are needed to sexually reproduce. Thus the implication is that Cheney will fulfill the role of the missing (male) animal in every coupling. The punchline suffers for lack of confirmation that this is the intended conclusion - the audience may even dismiss it and search for a different punch line with a clearer connection. But if the connection is made, the joke could be quite successful.
Mechanics: vulgar shock, exaggerated traits (passiveness, depravity)

One. He wasn't about to raise taxes just to pay for a bunch of extra animals.
This punchline has the added advantage of including Bush's politics (both the refusal to raise taxes and an anti-environmental stance). Referencing politics is an advantage because, as a politician, politics are most defining to Bush's persona, and thus highly expected; the brain is primed to make political connections before the punchline is even heard. Once again we have irony via stupidity but we also have the benefit of validating a couple political stereotypes (stereotypes are basically pre-set connections that can be easily co-opted into being the connection needed to make the punchline of a joke).
Mechanics: irony, exaggerated trait (stupidity), stereotype validation

One. Because nobody wants a sausage-fest.
This punchline plays off the perception that Bush was a party animal in his youth and hasn't grown up mentally since then and that he somehow prioritizes the minor entertainment of excluding the males over the threat of losing every animal species on earth. The connection is in equating the ship full of animals to a party, which is a stretch and may create too much distance for some audiences. Additionally, the joke fails if the audience doesn't know what a 'sausage-fest' is but gains extra humor if the audience does recognize the term (becoming something of an inside joke - funnier because the audience can feel pride in getting it). The best of two punchlines might be had by combining with Cheney: One. Dick Cheney told him 'nobody likes a sausage fest' . The filthiest implications are left unsaid but the joke makes the general implications more directly: 
Mechanics: irony, exaggerated trait (stupidity), stereotype validation, exclusivity.

Three. Because: That way he wouldn't have to 'lift the tail and check every gosh darn animal'.
This punchline creates a connection in a different direction than all the others, it asks the audience to imagine an unsavory aspect of collecting a matching pair of all animal species (confirming one male and one female). It invites the audience to imagine Bush in this scenario, a possibly humorous juxtaposition given the respectability of his role as president. There is also humor in connecting the number '3' with 'not wanting to check the gender of every animal'. The presumption is that Bush has added an extra animal in an effort to increase his odds of getting two of opposite genders. The stupidity comes into play with the fact that this does not guarantee one representative from each gender. While there is ample opportunity for humor in this punchline, the payout is possibly split in too many directions: not only do imagining Bush lifting tails and the irony of failing to guarantee matching pairs vie for attention but the source of the stupidity is not obvious, perhaps so unobvious that the audience can't be certain if they have made the right connection or not.

Mechanics: irony, exaggerated trait (stupidity, laziness), ridiculous visual

 

How many of each animal did George W. Bush bring with him on the ark?

Final picks:

None. Dick Cheney didn't want to step in any animal shit.
- direct, surprising and ends on a kicker
One. Gathering animals is hard work and who's counting anyway.
- nicely paraphrases Bush's voice and effortlessly blends stupidity and laziness 
One. Dick Cheney told him 'nobody likes a sausage fest' 
- it's got the Cheney, the inside humor and suggested vulgarity 
One. He wasn't about to raise taxes just to pay for a bunch of extra animals.
- ideal choice for a slow audience. emphasize the word 'extra' if they need a further hint

 

 

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