Sunday, May 07, 2006

Finally, the analysis of the "three monkeys" joke

Yes, I did hint that there was, somewhere or other, some kind of discussion of the "three monkeys" joke. And it is in this essay by Fr. Thomas. It's not as detailed as I recalled, but it will help.
--Dr. Thursday

Humor and Its Basis in Reason
Father A. Thomas, O.P.

In perusing the recent issue of Archaeology of Aphorism, I came across a letter mentioning the elephant example I considered last week. This letter, written by a scholar named Reynolds from the Northwest United States (I believe the state is one of several called "Dakota") proposed a scheme which might be termed "orthogonal" to that devised by Blücher. It groups the very famous transiting avian with the elephant one, as well as with a host of others, some extremely rare and unusual, including a subgroup which have been known since before Blucher's time as the "Crustacean" category. I had not planned on addressing any of these in the near future, as they have been thoroughly documented in a monograph not presently available to me, and as several of them, even in that monograph, are completely lacking in referents. But rather than leave the reader at a loss in this topic which has appeal only for the academics, I will quote three, just to give a hint of their complexity. The first is the one which has given rise to the name of the category:
"Crustacean means you can wear your bones on the outside."
Then there is this, which the careless reader would group as a classic example of the "double dictionary entry", but over which scholars are still divided:
"You should always say octopi when there are two or more octopuses."
Finally, the one which Reynolds mentioned as singularly classed with the elephant and avian examples:
"Some scientists say the oceans were formed six hundred million years ago. Six hundred million is larger than the largest known whale."
As is well-known in the literature, Blücher claims to group by function, or (as argued by Mme. Durochet) by verb. The orthogonal approach suggested by Reynolds groups by noun, and brings together all those on stars, on ions, on natural forces, on supernatural forces, and on animals. I am not sure that he has correctly closed the set of things, or at least provided the exhaustive list in his letter, but then the typography in that journal has suffered in recent years. However, without attempting to enter the debate here, I would like to give another example of the "animal" group, which may serve to introduce another approach to our main topic: the rational struture underlying humor of all kinds.

This one clearly dates to very recent times, though again the difficulties of translation seem gratuitously overlooked by all authors. But it does appear in Blücher's lists, and was examined by him in Archaeology of Aphorism, No. 59a (Special Memorial Issue):
Q. Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?
A. Because it was dead.
Q. Why did the second monkey fall out of the tree?
A. Because it was dead.
Q. Why did the third monkey fall out of the tree?
A. Peer pressure.
As a guide to the complexities of dating, I should point out that the cavalier mention of death clearly provides a reliable dating to sometime in the second millennium A.D. However the use of the term "monkey" is still being debated.
The machinery of humor here has been claimed upon three differing grounds, not unusual in such a multi-line aphorism. The first ground arises from the technique we have recently considered: that of "assertion of the obvious." A dead monkey will fall out of a tree, but that in itself is not funny at all. It relies upon the expectation of the unexpectable - which of course is the entire premise of the Hebrew Scriptures.
(One day while we were studying in Roma, we heard it whispered that the supreme joke of eternity consists of two parts - a question and an answer, like all the classic aphorisms - the two parts of course being the Old and New Testaments.)
The second ground centers on the dissonant rhythm of the answer of the third query. This dissonance, unlike that of music, is curiously satisfying, and is so well-known and ancient as to appear in the liturgy: consider the dramatic change in the response to the third Agnus Dei. [For those of you reading this after Vatican II, these words mean "Lamb of God." Eds.]
Finally, the third ground, and perhaps the least well-defended, is the fact that there are three questions, and not two or four. The importance of three has been coupled with a vast number of things ranging from the Trinity to the triples of nucleic acids which encode the building blocks of proteins.

Having treated this complex aphorism at length, let us conclude this portion of our study with simpler one, also mentioned by Reynolds:
Q. How do you get down off an elephant?
A. You don't get down off an elephant. You get down off a duck.
While we will not postulate how one might get onto the duck in the first place, the reader will readily grasp that this is a classic example of the double dictionary entry.

Reprinted with permission from
Something Good To Read
Vol. CXIV No. 230 (Feb. 11, 1998)


At 07 May, 2006 21:11, Blogger Rick Lugari said...

You should always say octopi when there are two or more octopuses.


At 08 May, 2006 08:35, Blogger rhapsody said...

"Peer pressure"...

ditto above!

At 08 May, 2006 09:31, Blogger Pasky said...

Q. Why did the monkey fall out of the tree?
A. Because it was dead.
Q. Why did the second monkey fall out of the tree?
A. Because it was dead.
Q. Why did the third monkey fall out of the tree?
A. Peer pressure.

These must be encoding monkeys. Maybe they took an oath - or was it in the fine print of the 'Mission Statement'? I can't imagine trunk monkeys giving in to peer pressure!

At 08 May, 2006 11:27, Blogger Dr. Thursday said...

Rick, what's even more strange is that there are THREE plural forms for "octopus" ... (one for each monkey!)

1. octopuses (the English way)
2. octopodes (the Greek way)
3. octopi (the Latin way)

Yes, these are really in the dictionary.

And Pasky, I don't think they were encoding monkeys either - like trunk monkeys, encoding monkeys are good hard workers, and don't have time for that sort of thing. Also, there was never more than one on duty at a time, so how could there be peer pressure? (Sorry, Rhapsody; it is a funny term.)

FYI: "Encoding monkeys" were specially trained primates who did certain - er - tasks at a company where I used to work. Trunk monkeys have similar duties in the automotive industry.

At 13 May, 2006 22:49, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"You should always say octopi when there are two or more octopuses."

I thought octopi was used to calculate circles and spheres in 8 dimensional space.

At 14 May, 2006 16:00, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah... you mean the octosphere, and the mathematical underpinnings of intergalactic physics?

ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND bringing up that sort of thing here?

This is not a secure blogg, after all.

If you have valid technical reasons for discussing this, you know what has to be done....

Get the kids some chalk, and take them out to the driveway, and get them drawing.

And make the monkey extra big this time, please??? How come the Nasca Indians could do it right back hundreds of years ago, but today's kids just won't draw nice big monkeys and turtles???

It's hard to land on planets with magentic fields, you know that. So get busy and leave those universal constants alone. We can't risk any more problems...

Remember: "gaseous iridium".


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