Harry Shearer Used My Joke

I haven’t seen This is Spinal Tap but I am a big fan of Harry Shearer’s Le Show, a weekly podcast. For the last few months, one segment has been about the misuse of so: People use it to start sentences that aren’t about consequences (“So we were standing there minding our own business. . . .”). I wrote Shearer to say he should change the name from Le Show to Le So. Not long after that, he ended the so segment with “here on Le So“.

Queen Late

When a Chinese friend of mine was in first grade, she was habitually late for school. Usually about ten minutes. Her mom took her to school on a bike. One day she was 20 minutes late. The door was closed. My friend opened the door. “May I come in?” she asked the teacher. The teacher came to the door. She took my friend to the front of the class. “Here is Queen Late (迟到大王),” she said.

Everyone laughed, including my friend. She thought it was a funny thing to say, not mean. The name stuck. Many years later, she was called Queen Late by those who knew her in primary school. Her teacher was not a great wit. Other students at other schools were called the same thing. It was/is a standard joke.

Sometimes I think Chinese have, on average, a better sense of humor than Americans, but who really knows? A more interesting contrast is how lateness is handled. At UC Berkeley, about 20 years ago, I attended a large lecture class (Poli Sci 3, Comparative Politics) taught by Ken Jowitt, a political science professor. Jowitt was considered an excellent lecturer, which was why I was there, but he was also famous for being hard on students who came in late. When I was there, a student came in late. Jowitt interrupted what he was saying to point out the offender and said something derogatory.  I don’t remember what Jowitt said but I do remember thinking — as someone who also taught large lecture classes where students came in late — that he was making a mountain, an unattractive mountain, out of a molehill. It didn’t occur to me to wonder how he could have dealt with the problem in a way that made everyone laugh.



Gary Shteyngart is a Very Funny Guy

I heard Gary Shteyngart (latest book Super Sad True Love Story) at the Beijing Bookworm. No better job of authorial self-promotion have I seen. He was born in Leningrad in 1972, he grew up hearing jokes from his parents. For example: The 1980 Summer Olympics were in Moscow. At the time, Brezhnev was in charge. He was going senile. At an Olympic ceremony,  he gave a speech. His hands shook holding the text of his talk.

“Ohhhhhh…..” he read.

He paused.


He paused.


An apparatchik ran up to him. “Senior Comrade Brezhnev, those are the Olympic Rings!”

The moderator asked Shteyngart what he thought of Putin’s plan to require every Russian teenager to read a specified 100 great books by graduation. “These things never work,” said Shteyngart. “American cities have done this. Everyone’s supposed to read a certain book, usually To Kill a Mockingbird. Never tell someone what to read.” However, he said one of his favorite authors is Karen Russell. (For a New Yorker podcast, he read a story by Andrea Lee.)

I asked about his favorite TV shows. He mentioned The Sopranos, The Wire, and Breaking Bad. “Who would have guessed that TV would become a great art form?” He is writing a show for HBO about Brooklyn immigrants.

I learned that he was interviewed by a magazine called Modern Drunkard. The interviewer — not Shteyngart — mentions an Russian saying: “The church is near, but the road is icy. The bar is far away, but I will walk carefully.” How true.




Assorted Links

Thanks to Alex Chernavsky and Casey Manion.

How to Start a Talk

A recent talk at the London School of Economics by Carne Ross, author of a book called The Leaderless Revolution: How ordinary people will take power and change politics in the 21st century, began with this:

I was preparing the talk this afternoon at my beloved cousin’s, where I’m staying. ’cause I don’t live in London anymore. She said, “How are you, Carne, how are you doing?” I said, “I’m a bit nervous, to be honest.” She said, “Don’t worry, Carne, I’ve heard lots of bad talks at the LSE.”

Chinese News

The media in China are government-controlled. There is a 30-minute newscast every day at 7:00 pm. A friend described it to me like this:

First 10 minutes: Government officials doing their jobs.

Middle 10 minutes: Chinese people being happy. Sports, food, achievements.

Final 10 minutes: People in other countries suffering.

Humor as Catalyst (another example)

Melody McLaren, whose giant greeting card I described a few days ago, told me another example of using humor to change behavior:

I was working at LA Incentives, a small promotional merchandise company in Barnes (southwest London). We (Liz Amies, the MD and I) were running a very small company in the midst of a recession (1987-1990). We were having difficulty getting our clients to pay us on time.  Money was tight for everyone and the big companies were notoriously late at paying small suppliers, who had no resources to hire people to chase their debts.

So, being desperate, I tried the humor route once again (this was a couple of years after the ad agency incident).  I drew cartoons that illustrated why clients might not be paying us – e.g. “You’re probably just trapped under something heavy” under a crude illustration of a guy pinned to the floor by a filing cabinet.  Weird, whimsical stuff.  I faxed the cartoons to the companies’ purchase ledger departments.  Although this didn’t work with everyone, quite a few people paid up immediately. It was the power of surprise, I guess.  No wars were stopped by this approach – but it did help us keep the company afloat for a while longer.

So effective you might think it would be obvious, but it isn’t. Although economists have a hard time using anything but incentives to explain economic behavior, notice that no incentives were changed.

Humor as Catalyst

In this TED video Lisa Donnelly, a cartoonist, says

women + humor = change

I’m not sure what changes she means. But I think she is saying something important. Humor has a way of making change easier.
In the 1980s a friend of mine named Melody McLaren worked as a personal assistant in a London advertising agency. One of her co-workers was a woman named Denise Taylor. Denise was the personal assistant of the managing director, Chris Ogilvie-Taylor. Normally personal assistants get a nameplate on the appropriate door but Denise did not because her boss, Ogilvy-Taylor, was worried about the appearance of nepotism.
Everybody — except perhaps Ogilvie-Taylor — thought this was unfair. But Ogilvie-Taylor’s boss was on a different floor. It would have been dangerous and strange to appeal to him.

My friend conceived a brilliant and surprising solution. She wrote a long poem, maybe 60 lines long, with rhyming couplets, about an imaginary town of Taylors (a play on “tailor”). The point of the poem was that Denise deserved her name on the door. Then, with the help of the art department, my friend wrote the poem on a giant card, about six feet high. The card was passed around the office. Everyone signed it. Then it was put in Mr. Johnson’s office. Soon Denise got a nameplate.

This was not exactly humor — more like whimsy, with humorous elements. It facilitated change.

Another example comes from a Chinese blogger:

On Oct. 20, a female blogger in northern China nicknamed Piggy Feet Beta announced a contest to incorporate the phrase “Li Gang is my father” into classical Chinese poetry. Six thousand applicants replied, one modifying a famous poem by Mao to read “it’s all in the past, talk about heroes, my father is Li Gang.”

Here too we have the three elements: woman, humor, change.

A friend of mine from Poland was surprised we had jokes in America. He thought the sole purpose of humor was to criticize the government. And our government was pretty good.

Sure, jokes are a way of saying the unsayable (e.g., dirty jokes). Sure, they can empower the weak, not just the strong (e.g., racist jokes). What’s interesting here is (a) Donnelly felt her equation was interesting (she’s right), meaning most of her audience didn’t know it; (b) she didn’t illustrate it well (why not?); (c) humor can be useful in everyday life (as my friend’s example shows), not just to criticize the government. I think this point should be incredibly obvious, like the sky is blue, but it isn’t.

Effect of Oscar on Marriage

This study found that women who win a Best Actress Oscar have a much higher rate of divorce in the following years than the losing Best Actress nominees and the Best Actor nominees, both winning and losing. A Chinese joke I heard recently says essentially the same thing:

There are four kinds of people: 1. Man. 2. Woman. 3. Woman with a Ph.D. 4. Someone who will marry a woman with a Ph.D.

Via Marginal Revolution.

Chinese Joke

A few days ago I got the following message (in Chinese) on my cell phone (part of a service):

A monkey, goat, and tortoise were playing together. After a while they got thirsty. They sent the tortoise to get water. Half a day later, the tortoise still hadn’t returned. “That *)?!% idiot is too slow!” said the monkey. From outside came the voice of the tortoise: “If you call me more bad words I won’t get water for you.”

Why Are Volcano Jokes So Bad?

You may remember What does NASA stand for? Need Additional Six Astronauts. This circulated after the Challenger blew up. In contrast, the volcano jokes I’ve heard are curiously bad:

6. Dear Iceland, We said send cash, not ash.

7. Woke this morning to find every surface in the house covered in a layer of dust and a foul stench of sulphur in the air…. Yes, I’ve been married to that bone-idle slob for 20 years.

8. It was the last wish of the Icelandic economy that its ashes were spread all over Europe.

9. There’s no pleasing the English. The last time they got the Ashes they were over the moon.

10. Went outside today and got hit by a bag of frozen sausages, a chocolate gateau and some fish fingers. Someone said it’s a fallout from Iceland.

The Door-in-the-Face Effect

One of my Tsinghua students, a freshman, has been getting up early Saturday mornings to go to nearby Beijing University to attend a 4-hour intro psych class for graduate students. “What does the teacher talk about?” I asked. He showed me his notes. “The Door-in-the-Face Effect” was the heading of a little graph he’d drawn. “What’s that?” I asked. “If you get someone to help you in a little way, they’re more likely to help you in a big way later,” he said. I knew that result. It’s called the foot-in-the-door effect. “Your teacher made a mistake,” I said.

I was wrong. There is a door-in-the-face effect very similar to the foot-in-the-door effect. The door-in-the-face effect is after you make a big request that is turned down, you are more likely to get agreement to a small request.

Cold Jokes

A cold joke is a sort of nonsensical joke that is funny because it’s not funny, sort of like the New Yorker Anti-Cartoon Caption Contest. Two examples:

1. A piece of bread was walking down the street. It got hungry, so it ate itself.

2. Hanging in the hallway at Whites High School in Wabash, Indiana, are basketball team photos. In the center of the front row in each picture someone holds a basketball identifying the year: “62-63”, “63-64”, “64-65″, etc. One day I saw a freshman looking at the photos. Turning to me, he said,”Isn’t it strange how the teams always lost by one point?”