The Maai of Jokes

From my martial arts blog Jissen Budōka.

間合い

A duck walks into the dōjō for his first session. He’s awkward and seems to be getting everything wrong.

The Sensei calls out, “Duck!”

The duck snaps to attention and says, “Yes, Sensei” — boot to the head.

Maai often gets boiled down to “distancing.” Understanding distancing is simple, understanding maai is challenging. First, maai understood in three dimensions is maai misunderstood. The fourth dimension, time, is critical. Second, maai is always interactive. Rules of thumb will only get one so far because the peculiarities of the opponent matters. Third, the interval between recognition and response that occurs in the mind is as important as the physical distance.

It behooves the martial artist to see the maai  existing in exchanges outside the dōjō. Thinking of maai solely in terms of kenjutsu, for example, can encourage one to focus on the physical distance. The distance gap is what we can see, and that is what is most easily analyzed. However, another area in which maai is critical is joke telling, and in jokes one has to optimize for intangibles –timing and audience response to the joke.  Not that this should be an intellectual exercise (that slows everything down); I presume it’s intuitive for people with the skill. 

A joke has a two-part anatomy: 1.) a set up that is straight, plausible, and –perhaps even– factual; 2.) a punch line that must turn expectations on their head with punch. The interval between parts 1 and 2 separates masterful joke tellers from horrible ones. If one runs the punchline into the setup, one risks the joke falling flat. If the recipient doesn’t recognize the transition they may start thinking about what was said (ugh –analysis is the nemesis of humor.) However, if one pauses too long, one risks the recipient anticipating the ending. Some jokes are easier to tell than others. The one that opened this post is easily anticipated. Recognition of the dual-use of “duck” happens quickly.

For a more user-friendly joke consider the one that a scholarly survey suggested was the world’s funniest joke:

A woman gets onto a bus with an infant. The driver vomits in his mouth a little and says, “Lord, that is the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen.”

The woman is appalled and speechless. She scowls, pays the fare, and proceeds to the rear of the bus.

Sitting down, she says to the woman next to her, “I’m outraged; I can’t believe how insulting the bus driver was.”

The woman says, “Well go give him a piece of your mind. Don’t worry. I’ll hold your monkey.”

The elaborate set up makes it difficult to anticipate the ending, and the twist between kindness and cruelty is readily apparent. (“Monkey” is very visual.) The punchline is really a punchword, the very last word.

Other jokes have more balance between set up and punchline, and that increases anticipation risk.

I was in the bookstore the other day and I asked the clerk for the self-help section.

She said that if she told me it would defeat the purpose.

Here one starts getting clues much earlier.

Other joke concepts are so well-known they invite anticipation.

Blonds all want to be like Vanna White, they yearn to know the… alphabet.

As for rushing the punch line, consider the joke:

I’m thoroughly familiar with 25 letters of the alphabet. I don’t know “Y.”

While in writing the joke is clear, this is the type of joke that can easily be missed and fall flat. It’s not just because it’s not exactly hilarious, but because the recipient may have to reconstruct the joke or, worse yet, have it explained to them –both of which are death.

The other thing that one must recognize is that there are always specific exceptions that work. “Interrupting cow” is the perfect example of a rushed punchword that works.

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