April 30, 2005

The Humor Taxonomy Gene

When Agent 81 was nine or ten years old, he discovered the Marx Brothers and became obsessed with them, watching their movies over and over, pretty much memorizing the screenplays. Not a comedian himself (though a gifted comic actor), as a teenager he began an intellectual inquiry into the sources and meaning of humor. With a couple of his friends – who have since gone on to become admirably–placed comedy writers – he drafted and refined a typology of jokes: an authoritative list of twenty–odd reasons something can be funny. Later in their educations, they found some of their explanations duplicated in classic writings on the philosophy and psychology of humor.

Yesterday his half–brother Agent 95 told me this joke:

“What do you call an abominable snowman who’s inside a block of ice?”

“I don’t know, what?”


I laughed. And then he elucidated: “That’s one of my favorite kinds of jokes. The punch line is so obvious it’s funny. It’s the same principle as ‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’”

I looked at him carefully, and thoughtfully nodded.