Monthly Archives: June 2011

Why did the cat fall off the roof?

For many years I have loved terrible jokes. I also like good jokes, but there is something about a terrible joke that I particularly admire. My favorite kind of terrible jokes are the ones that you have to painstakingly explain. I’m not saying these kinds of jokes are socially acceptable, of course they aren’t, but that’s just how I am.

There is however a particularly wonderful variant of these jokes that you have to explain – the ones that make immediate sense to a very small subset of people. Here’s one that I’ve known since I was a kid:

Why did the cat fall off the roof?
Because it lost its Mu.

Trust me, if you were an applied mathematics fan, or into physics, or engineering, you would be… well laughing is probably be a bit much… but you’d be having a good old groan.

The joke here relies on the fact that Mu is the way you pronounce this greek letter μ. And μ is the symbol in applied mathematics and engineering for Resistance or Friction. So if you lost your μ then you would have no frictional resistance so you would fall off a roof, and of course Mu sounds like Mew, the noise that a cat makes.

I made an applied mathematics teacher fall off his chair laughing at that one, but they don’t get out much. And as with all things in life, it’s the way you tell ‘em.

Here’s one I made up that only works for Harry Potter fans, which these days is a very wide audience, perhaps too wide an audience to really count but it still does divide audiences as to whether they get it or not…

Which company do Hogwarts use to deliver snakes?

Parseltongue is a name in the Harry Potter universe for the language of snakes, and in the UK there is a parcel delivery network called Parcelforce.

Now while the Harry Potter universe is now wide enough to mean that more people, in the world, have probably heard about Parseltongue than Parcelforce, it is still domain specific* enough to count, in my opinion, because it’s not something that everyone could work out. For the joke to work by this specific metric, it has to only work if you are a Harry Potter fan – you can’t just work it out.

But where is the line, and how does one cross it?

Why did the Belgian keep mixing up his definite articles?
Because he was Antwerp

Most people will understand this joke, the creator of this joke** has gone for widespread glory instead of domain specificity. However if he had made the joke this:

Why did the Belgian keep choosing the wrong articles?
Because he was Antwerp

It is more likely to only work for fanboys and girls of parts of speech. The use of the word definite in the first version mentally prepares you for the fact that it’s a parts of speech joke. But also because, at some point, almost everyone has had to learn the parts of speech, it is right on the line.

And right over the line, on the other side, are jokes where, while the joke is about a job, or area, it makes a play on words about something that everyone knows:

Why was the police officer sitting in the tree?
Special Branch

Everyone in the UK knows what that means even if it is a police term. What we’d be looking for, in a police officer joke, would be something that makes a pun about the forms that you have to fill in to arrest somebody or something.

Anyway… This is a call out for you. I love these kinds of jokes, so do you have any, can you make any up? Give it your best shot in the comments.

*Domain specificity is a fantastic concept in cognitive science which describes how infants seem able to very rapidly learn certain kinds of things like numeracy and how objects work as though these things are hard wired into us. I have stolen the name to make it be about how these certain jokes only work for certain groups of people.

**Bill Booth of Tottenham – Made up Jokes – Adam & Joe 6 music – 30th April 2011