Andrew Morton tweeted at me the other day:

I ran an on-the-spot thought experiment, trying to find a counterexample to the assertion “In order to make a joke about something you have to understand it.”

I thought of a few things that I don’t pretend to understand, such as special relativity, and tried to make a joke out of one of them. Which I did, and so I think I can safely say this:

Now this isn’t a side-splitting, snot shower-inducing, self-suffocating-with-laughter kind of a joke. But it is a joke and the humour comes from the resolution of the cognitive dissonance that it sets up: the idea that special relativity could have anything to do with special relatives. (As such, for anyone who doesn’t know that the two things are unrelated, this joke doesn’t work.)

And I think that set up is a key point with respect to Andrew’s question. If I want to deliberately set up a joke then I need to be aware of the potential for that dissonance:

Reading it back now I’m still comfortable with that initial analysis although I have more thoughts that I intentionally left alone on the Twitter thread. Thoughts like:

  • What do we mean by understand in this context?
  • I don’t understand special relativity in depth, but I have an idea about roughly what it is. Does that invalidate my thought experiment?
  • What about the other direction: does understanding something enable you to make a joke about it?
  • What constitutes a joke?
  • Do we mean a joke that makes someone laugh?
  • If so, who?
  • Or is it enough for the author to assert that it’s a joke?
All things it might be illuminating to pursue at some point. But the thought that I’ve been coming back to since tweeting that quick reply is this: in my EuroSTAR 2015 talk, Your Testing is a Joke, I made an analogy between joking and testing. So what happens if we recast Andrew’s original in terms of testing?

Does being able to test something show that you understand it?

And now the questions start again…