Taking a joke too far

In the last blog I argued that jokes are delicate, fragile, precious little things, and that this can be true – especially so – when dealing with themes of a more sensitive nature.

In this blog, I’d like to try and prove that to you, or at least show how phrasing jokes differently can have more impact than you may anticipate. I’m going to talk about the Mexican (or Spanish) lightbulb joke – one of my favourite ever bits of comedy to analyse! This is the sort of thing that can be extremely off-putting to people – many folks believe (as E.B. White did) that you should never analyse humour, and this probably stems from a reluctance to take the art-form as seriously as it merits. Why, though? I think it’s because the fundamental purpose of comedy is to make you laugh, and therefore it seems oddly contradictory to take it seriously. If you’re reading this blog, hopefully you recognise this assertion is as ludicrous as expecting people to only sing and dance about their appreciation of music.

So, here’s the set-up for the joke:

How many Mexicans does it take to change a lightbulb?

Note that it’s common for the set-up to substitute “Mexicans” with “Spaniards.” There are two common punchlines for this joke, “Juan” and “just Juan.” One of them is better than the other, have a think about why this might be before you read on, and see if you can guess which one I believe to be superior. You may not agree with my argument, but give it a go anyway.

When I put the question out on Twitter today, most folks plumped for “just Juan” as being the superior answer – a few suggested a fairly common alternative of “only Juan.” The correct answer is indeed “just Juan”, and on closer inspection the punchline of “Juan” doesn’t work quite as well as it actually should. Both responses will get a laugh, so they’re both evidently doing their job, and people will respond to and justify one over the other in different ways, meaning we can certainly get a clear idea of how complex humour is from this one-word difference. Still with me? Exciting, isn’t it?

“Juan” seems to answer the question adequately with some word-play. On closer inspection, though, we can see that it actually fails to do so in a way that makes sense. “How many Mexicans does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Juan.” One Mexican. The issue, though, is that there are two possible answers that could be given at the same time – the number, and the identity of the intrepid light-bulb repairer – to really make this some proper word-play. Yet when the answer is “Juan”, only the number is really given. Let’s make this clearer by substituting another name – “How many Mexicans does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Roberto.” This clearly isn’t an elegant answer to the question, and doesn’t properly address the question of “how many?” Therefore, with the response of “Juan” the joke is only working as a pun on common Mexican/Spanish names and, in this instance, the fact that it sounds similar to the pronunciation of the word “one” – close analysis reveals it to be something of a non sequitur.

So let’s look at what I believe to be the optimal punchline to this joke – “How many Mexicans does it take to change a lightbulb?” “Just Juan.” Now, with the addition of one word, the joke suddenly works on an extra level! It’s just become a lot more clever, and bears up to actual scrutiny. It answers the question posed in the set-up in two different ways – “just one / just Juan” – and both make sense.

I hope that’s clear. In addition to the logic and impact of the joke being improved by the addition of one word, there are a number of other factors that should be outlined – these are what caused my Twitter followers to instinctively plump for “just Juan”, even though the majority of them weren’t focused on the semantics I’ve outlined so far in this blog. Written down, people are drawn to the apparent alliteration – that technique so beloved of tabloid headline writers the world over, and they certainly know how to grab people’s attention. There’s also a pleasing rhythm to the punchline, two single-syllable stabs… BOOM BOOM. Then again, some people prefer the curtness of “Juan” on its own. Finally, the addition of the word “just” modifies the image of Juan in such a way that it causes many people to imagine that there’s one single, lonely Mexican, travelling around, fixing every single defective lightbulb in all of Mexico, and this again is a very pleasing conceit to many.

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