Open Letter to Mathy Folks on the Internet
My friend Adam has this awful habit of explaining jokes that need no explanation. For instance, a conversation might go like this:
Adam: What do you think of that candidate?
Somebody: He’s an asshole. If he wins, I’ll be playing hockey and ice fishing by Thursday.
Adam: Yeah, or you could move to Canada to get away from him!
As a result, my friend Paul has given Adam the nickname Tabasco; to Paul, Tabasco sauce and Adam’s explanations are both unnecessary extras.
But I can forgive Adam. He doesn’t add this unnecessary extra in an attempt to explain the joke to others. I simply think the subtlety is lost on him, and he’s trying to make a joke that he supposes original.
I cannot, however, forgive people who provide explanations to jokes because they think you should find it as funny as they do.
I have a belief about jokes: If you need to explain it, then you shouldn’t tell it. Technically speaking, explaining a joke won’t kill it. It doesn’t need to; the joke is already dead. Explaining a joke because no one laughs is like giving mouth-to-mouth to a skeleton.
Recently, though, a rash of mathematicians has taken to explaining math jokes. Walter Hickey recently wrote 13 Jokes That Every Math Geek Will Find Hilarious, in which he provides an explanation for the math behind each joke. (If you’ve read this blog for a while, don’t visit that link. The only one you haven’t heard before is, “Two random variables were talking in a bar. They thought they were being discrete, but I heard their chatter continuously.”) And in the video Math Jokes Explained by Comedian Matt Parker, a rather funny mathematician does his best to remove everything funny from a number of classic jokes.
What’s the point?
Are they hoping that the explanations will suddenly make the non-mathy population find us undeniably witty? Or perhaps math-phobes will instantly find math less intolerable? (“Oh, my goodness, you’re right… that was a funny joke! I think I’ll go register for Diff Eq now!”)
That must be what they’re thinking, because the explanations aren’t for the mathy crowd. We already get the jokes.
So I offer the following letter to all those who feel the need to offer explanations.
Dear Mathy Folks on the Internet,
Please stop wasting bandwidth by explaining jokes.
If your jokes are funny, I’ll laugh. If I don’t get them, I’ll leave your site and search for one with jokes that I understand. And if I can’t find any, then I’ll search for sites with cool math problems or hysterical cat videos or, God willing, both.
If you want me to understand the math behind the jokes, then write a textbook, or post a video, or teach a class, or start a blog. After I know a little, then tell me your joke. And we can laugh together as equals who both understand why it’s funny.
I. Don Gettit