Explaining fairies: Why isn't a joke funny when you have to explain it?

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Joel Thomas

Jan 29, 2014, 12:05:19 AM1/29/14
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While sitting and waiting for my brain to reboot after waking up at the unearthly time I have to every morning (and resisting the urge to go back to bed), I thought of a way of explaining what fairies are all about and why we mustn't kill them. I think it might be useful in winning over “traditional-style learners” and in helping newbies grasp what we’re trying to do here. And you know what, it’s probably true as well.

So here goes:

The secret to understanding language fairies lies in the answer to this question: What makes a joke funny? Or more specifically, why isn’t a joke funny when you have to explain it?

Maybe it’s best to give an example. I’m going to tell you a joke you probably haven’t heard before, it’s about the comical Turkish character Nasreddin Hoca [pronounced “hodja”]. One day Nasreddin’s neighbour comes up to him and says, “Nasreddin, I heard some terrible noises from your house last night, I hope everything’s all right.” Nasreddin says, “Ah yes, don’t worry, it was nothing. I was having a tiff with the wife and she got a bit angry and threw my coat down the stairs.” The neighbour looks a little confused. “How can a coat make so much noise falling down the stairs?” he asks. Nasreddin gets annoyed. “OK, OK!” he says. “I was wearing my coat at the time, are you happy now?”

Now why is that funny? Well, the story is normal and logical, until we get to the punchline. The punchline is logical too, on one level, but on another level it’s silly. The real reason for the noises was that Nasreddin’s wife pushed him down the stairs so his first answer was silly, what’s even more silly is that Nasreddin is letting his wife push him around, and what’s even more silly is that Nasreddin was trying to hide that fact with a silly answer! In an instant our brain suddenly sees the two levels, the logical level and the silly level, and something magical happens in the gap in between. It’s a flash, a spark–a fairy. We “get it”, and we laugh.

But what happens when somebody says, “I didn’t get it”? You then have to explain the joke to him. “It’s funny because the coat wasn’t making the noise, it was his wife pushing him down the stairs, and then he was trying to hide it…” Now our friend “gets it”, but does he laugh? No, he just says “Oh, yeah, right”, and there’s an awkward silence. He now sees the two levels, the logical level and the silly level, like we do, but he’s not laughing. There’s no flash, no spark, no fairy. We killed it by explaining it.

Our brains are constantly searching for patterns. The joy of discovery comes when it finds a pattern for itself. It’s the “Eureka!” moment. When we see the pattern in a joke, we laugh. When we see the pattern in language, it sticks. But when you have to explain a joke, it’s not funny. When you have to explain grammar, it doesn’t stick. Because there’s no spark of learning, no fairy.

Sometimes you have to explain a joke, and frankly it’s very hard to “get grammar” without having it explained to you at some point. But we never had to have the grammar of our native language “explained” to us. If I explain everything to you like in a traditional language lesson, your brain will be stone cold with no spark and no fairy. The way to make a joke funny is to build up to the punchline with an engaging story, carefully told. The way to make language stick in our minds is with a carefully crafted “set-up” that’s “obvious”, fun, and evokes a “total physical response”. Then along comes the fairy. Your brain "gets it"…

So there you go, just thought I’d put it down quickly before I forget it. Just my two cents/pence/kuruş/[insert currency unit here].

Arianne Potter

Jan 29, 2014, 7:41:53 AM1/29/14
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What a lovely explanation.

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Arianne Kahn
Agnes Scott '10

Evan Gardner

Jan 29, 2014, 2:07:24 PM1/29/14
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By making perfect set ups we create places where fairies can live. 

Not only places where can fairies remain alive but really the ability to create new habitat for fairies to be born into, move into, and expand their territory... Maybe even spark fairy babies!

Thank you Joel for this great story. I have been trying to put my finger on this for years!

We have talked a lot about TQ: "field of dreams" (if you build it they will come) for creating healthy communities capable of sustaining a community language night and that in turn will invite people to attend the language night because a safe place has been built for people to come to, which in turn creates a more healthy community (Insert "coda" or circular argument here) But I never explicitly extended that thought to building a safe space for the spark and spirit of the language itself. I have always felt it but could never explain it. And therefor  I have sometimes had a hard time convincing people it was a good idea not to kill fairies... A pretty spiritless/soulless argument... "Trust me,  killing fairies is bad."

Just an aside, I have found that sometimes,in some crowds, people get a bit put off to "killing fairies". Jason Slanga came up with a good alternative that you all may find useful in a tough crowd "spoiler alert". I think it is interesting that even that thought dances around the idea that something is being robbed from the experience of "getting it" on your own through an elegant set up or series of set ups in stead of it being "explained to death".

Again. Thank you Joel... Keep those early morning, shower ideas coming... TQ: pen and pad near the bed for capturing Earth changing ideas! Aka TQ "sharpie in the shower" (but then you have to wash the sharpie off, I know, I know, not the best plan!)
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