Why Are Dirty Jokes Funny?

By Michael

Off-color humor is certainly not new: some of the earliest recorded jokes, told thousands of years ago, deal with things that people do in the bathroom or the bedroom. What makes these jokes funny?

What makes any joke funny? Experts say that humor is based on incongruity. That is, jokes are based on surprise, on elements that don’t go together. For example, a small child who talks like an educated adult, or a respected adult who acts like a child.

Yet the elements must still have a connection with real life. When he was a little boy, my brother used to tell a joke with the punchline, “Pass… the… soap… No soap! Ray… dee… oh!” That was not humor, it was nonsense. The joke was on anyone who tried to figure out the joke. We think the precocious child is funny because we’ve heard educated adults say the same things. We think the respected adult is funny when he sticks his tongue out or cleans her nose because we know children who act like him or her.

So why are dirty jokes funny? Because they have built-in incongruity. Every one of them talks about things that people don’t talk about in polite company. We automatically think, “I can’t believe we’re talking about this!” They don’t fit in with our normal conversations. Just hearing them is incongruous.

I’ve only looked at one issue of the soft-porn men’smagazine Playboy, just to say I had done it. Men protest to their suspicious wives that they only read it for the articles. Judging from the issue I saw, they certainly don’t read it for the cartoons. I remember several of them, only because I read them over and over, trying to figure out why they were supposed to be funny. But they were dirty and incongruous. Dr. Judith Reisman and her researchers studied decades of such magazines, every issue, and I can only recall one joke they cited that I found remotely humorous.

Once I understood the nature of humor, I realized that dirty jokes are cheap humor. Not merely low-class or coarse, but cheap in the sense that they don’t cost much. Because every dirty joke is incongruous, dirty jokes get a laugh even if they’re poorly told, even if they wouldn’t be funny if the subject matter were different. That makes indelicate humor a delicate area for writers who want to write well. Using it can make you appear funnier than you are. Better: learn how to be truly funny, without having to depend on easy subject matter.

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8 Responses to “Why Are Dirty Jokes Funny?”

  • Brad K.

    A good friend ruined most jokes for me. Skip told me that humor (as opposed to joy) depends on pain, humiliation, or both.

    – Hear about the Blonde homeowner? She paid her mortgage. –

    This is one of a very small number of Blonde jokes I like – the joke is on the listener. What starts out to be “see how humiliated Blonde women are”, is instead a joke about how unfair the plethora of bad mortgages and unpaid mortgages are to those that meet their obligations. There are a couple of others, that similarly turn the tables on the ‘genre’ of the joke.

    Since then, I look for joy, and avoid ‘humor’. If gossip is one of the true social evils, then surely humor is another.

    When you were looking at the Playboy, perhaps you should have been looking for the pain and humiliation angle. Or when you watch “Mrs. Hughes” and other comedy videos.

    Or when you are tempted to tell a shaggy-dog story that ends in a, *shudder*, pun. “There was this mountain overlooking the Valley of Trid, that had a river running down through the village of the Trids …”

  • richard

    Dear Maeve or whoever

    I remember my wife sitting next to me on a trip to the Great Wall of China and behind us were two Americans. They offered my wife and me some peanuts. She thanked them by saying ,”Thank you for your penises”. I turned red and the Americans pretended they hadn’t heard. No one looked each other in the eye for the rest of the journey.

    Later we laughted about it: a dirty joke …not really, but it does gives us happy memories of that time.

  • Michael

    I don’t agree that all humor is based on pain or humiliation. Some is based on joy. But there are certainly a lot of jokes that try to humiliate people. Where I live, students at a particular university were long the butt of “ignorant rural person” jokes. My favorite turns the stereotype around: a professor hooked up a honor student to an experimental device that would lower his intelligence sufficiently to be admitted. However, the machine got stuck, and when the student was finally disconnected, he was so mentally deficient that his only words were – the rival university’s slogan!

  • Allan McDougall

    I think the word you’re looking for is “taboo.” Dirty jokes allow an outlet for discussing taboo topics that don’t often come up in conversation. I think that in many ways they’re how people negotiate understanding social unacceptable topics of conversation (taboos) like masturbation, sex acts, racism, etc.

  • Brad K.

    Curious. Taboo means that something is avoided due to cultural or religious belief. But somehow we have come to treat “taboo” the way scofflaws treat exceeding the posted speed limit – it is wrong if you get caught. Or the way parents “lay down the law” and don’t actually enforce rules consistently.

    Sexual taboos have almost come to mean “you gotta try this!”

    So “taboo” as it is used today may be the reason for part of the interest in bathroom / juvenile humor. It may also be related to making potty-training interesting and fun for kids. Did you teach your kids to laugh and enjoy stuff in the bathroom?

  • Michael

    Maybe some people feel it’s okay to be racist or sexist as long as they’re joking about it. As a writer, I don’t want to use humor like my friend the magician did, to distract people from what I’m really doing. In fact, I enjoy the humor that comes from bluntly telling the truth. What makes a humorist great, such as Mark Twain, is the ability to reveal truth that other people can’t or won’t. Somehow honesty has incongruity built-in.

  • Stephen Thorn

    Having enjoyed looking at the pictures (and even reading articles!) in Playboy, as well as many other skin magazines, over the years I will agree that few of the jokes are funny. But then I would say the same thing about The New Yorker’s cartoons.

    Humor is truly subjective — as the saying goes, “one man’s meat is another man’s poison.” What makes me laugh may make you cringe. Now I’ve read a lot of jokes that make me smile, or just give me a kind of “internal grin” that equates with thoughts like ‘oh, okay, that’s funny’ but never quite makes it to the surface of my face. Jokes that really make me bust a gut have to be new to my experience, as well as having inconguity. Even gags that made me guffaw once upon a time don’t even make me chuckle anymore.

  • Christy

    People do not normally laugh at jokes that are offensive for them
    Somehow laugh is a cry victory. It’s an evolutionary signal saying: “Yes, I have won! I am better than you! And if you look at jokes, a lot of them do involve misfortune to other people.

    This explains everything, particularly – why some people find a joke funny while others find the same joke offensive or not funny enough to laugh at it.

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