The Time Out Joke

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In the summer of 2001 I said something very funny.

I was working as a waiter at the time, at a small cafe in Berwick-upon-Tweed. The cafe was about to close when a Scottish family bustled through the door. “I’m sorry, we’re not serving any more,” I told them before they could sit down. Looking crestfallen, they quietly left.

It was obvious that the family was staying at the nearby caravan park, and given the lateness of the hour I guessed that they had only just arrived and were looking for a place to have dinner after a long and arduous journey.

After they were gone I turned to the waitress who was standing with me behind the counter, and it was at this point that I said something very funny.

It really landed. The waitress laughed so hard that she couldn’t breathe. Her cheeks turned red and she had to lean on the counter to prevent herself from falling over. Infected by her laughter, I beamed too, and we continued like this for more than ten seconds, until the other waitress who was working that shift emerged from the kitchen.

“What are you laughing about?” she said.

“I don’t even know,” said the first waitress. “I think I’m going mad.”

Going mad? The smile left my face.

The waitress was half right. It’s completely true that she didn’t know why she was laughing, but she was wrong to think that it was because she was going mad. She was laughing because I had just said something very funny. She just didn’t understand why it was funny.

I’ve thought about this episode many times over the last 15 years, because it perfectly crystallises an interesting property of humour: it’s not always easy to know why you’re laughing, even if there’s always an explanation. In this case, I happen to have the explanation, because it was me who said the very funny thing.

Here’s what I said, about the people who had come into the cafe:

“I feel guilty now, thinking of them all sitting in their caravan eating Time Outs”.

Let me just say, I know this joke probably didn’t make you laugh out loud. There are at least two reasons for this, and the first is very obviously that a joke on the page is not the same as a joke being “performed” in person. In delivering this remark I unconsciously used modifiers such as posture, gesture, facial expression, and vocal inflection to emphasise my weirdly judgemental disquiet, all of which are absent in this arena.

The second reason is simply that you weren’t there, and context really matters. So join me now as I finally deconstruct the joke in order to explain to an imagined version of the person who was there, my colleague, exactly why she found my remark so hilariously funny.

1) Contextual mood imagery. When the family came into the cafe it must have been about nine o’ clock, and there were no lights on because we were about to close. This photonic gloom naturally translated into psychological gloom as we imagined the dejected family together in their cramped caravan wordlessly eating Time Outs.

2) Incongruity. Chocolate is not a solemn foodstuff. It’s what a person eats for pleasure and indulgence. Therefore, the image of a disappointed family unhappily eating chocolate is innately incongruous, and therefore funny.

3) Thwarted ambition. It’s not entirely clear why failure is always funny, but it is. In this case a family has failed in its attempt to eat nutritious food in a comfortable setting, and so the image of them eating food with no nutritional content in an extremely confined setting contains a lot of humour.

4) Judicious specificness. I’ve experimentally run through this joke hundreds of times with different chocolate bars, and none of them is as funny as Time Out. Mars: too conventional. Galaxy Caramel: too indulgent. Toblerone: distractingly evocative of travel.

But in 2001, when I made the joke, the Time Out bar had been available in the UK for less than a decade, meaning it still had a very gentle frisson of novelty. Buying a Time Out didn’t exactly feel like a special treat, but it was still possible for most of us to remember a time when it did. However, the Time Out bar was also an inescapably ordinary chocolate bar. Some chocolate, some wafer. In terms of ingredients and mouth feel it was like a slightly more substantial Kit Kat. But some time in 1999 confectionary shoppers awoke to find a new contender on the shelves.

“What’s this? Kit Kat Chunky. Yes please.”

The Time Out had no place to run, and, as we now know for a fact, its days were numbered. The novelty, the agreeability, but also the tragedy of the Time Out made it the perfect ingredient of my very funny joke.

My colleague may not have known why she laughed so uncontrollably when, on that ordinary evening in 2001, I made a humorous remark about some unfortunate holidaymakers, but I knew, and now that I’ve finally shared my workings I hope that you too will be able to understand the deep, hidden forces that are at work when somebody such as myself says something which is very, very funny for reasons that are not immediately obvious.

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The playground: a habitat diagram

diagramplayground

Elation in Trump camp as groping tape promises to distract from debate performance

trumpDonald Trump’s advisers are reportedly expressing relief ahead of Trump’s second debate with Hillary Clinton, following the timely emergence of a recording in which Trump boasts that his star power enables him to grab women “by the pussy” unchallenged.

There are even suspicions that Trump’s election strategists leaked the tape themselves in a bid to distract the world from the things that Trump is likely to say during the second presidential debate on Sunday night.

Insiders claim that there has been growing alarm at Trump’s preparatory notes, which are written in the candidate’s trademark gold crayon.

“He uses almost no full-stops and a LOT of epithets,” one unnamed adviser lamented. “And there are no, like, spaces between the words, and he doesn’t seem to understand how capital letters work.

“But most of the pages are just drawings,” the adviser added. “He specialises in fighter jets shooting giant women in the tits.”

While the first presidential debate was widely judged to have gone in Clinton’s favour, Trump was able to recover from this by urging his base to watch a nonexistent sex tape featuring an immigrant whom he had previously derided for being overweight.

Trump’s camp is confident that the groping tape – which also features a member of the Bush family because, it is believed, that’s just what Republicans are like – will be sufficiently distracting that only minimal attention will be paid to the many rambling asides and non-sequiturs that Trump is planning to make on Sunday.

Owen Smith to visit Beatles museum

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Former Labour Party leadership candidate Owen Smith has revealed plans to visit the Beatles Story museum in Liverpool later today, after finding himself at a loose end.

He will set out for the museum around mid-afternoon, by which time he is confident that his sobs will have subsided. There are suggestions that he may buy an Abbey Road coaster from the gift shop, with cost expected to be the deciding factor.

After visiting the museum, sources claim he is likely to take the Magical Mystery Tour, a lavishly decorated coach that visits a number of sites in south Liverpool connected with The Beatles, such as Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields, and a bus stop.

He has indicated that he will be happy to take photos of American tourists standing next to the Penny Lane sign, though it is unclear at this stage whether he understands that he will not be expected to appear in the pictures.

At around 5PM, while his rival Jeremy Corbyn is giving interviews and setting out his vision for the future of the Labour Party, Smith will eat a quick supper of fish and chips while leaning on a lamppost outside Lime Street station.

After that, Smith plans, if there’s time, to visit Mendips, the semi-detached Menlove Avenue home in which John Lennon grew up, though sources claim he is reluctant to travel by taxi to the attraction for fear of being recognised and asked intrusive questions.

His team tactfully indicated that they didn’t think this would be a problem.

Australian family “wins” right to stay in UK

victoryAn Australian family involved in a high profile legal battle to avoid deportation have “won” the right to remain in the Scottish Highlands, with wellwishers around the world hailing their “successful” appeal.

Their “victory” comes at the end of a protracted dispute with the UK government after the foreign office unexpectedly cancelled its post-study work visa programme – the initiative which encouraged the family to seek a “better” life in the UK in the first place.

Gregg and Kathryn Brain are reportedly thrilled that they will not face deportation to the balmy tropical paradise of Australia, and will instead have the “privilege” of remaining in the Scottish Highlands, a remote and culturally isolated region which “enjoys” the highest annual rainfall in the UK.

Despite their obvious joy at the “positive” outcome of their appeal, it remains unclear what lies behind the Brains’ determination to “live” in the Scottish Highlands, with many speculating that toxic debt, scandal, or arrest awaits them in their native Australia.

Following their “win”, the Brains are looking forward to discovering more of Scotland’s many “delicacies”, which include deep-fried “pizza”, sausage “meat” squares, and Buckfast.

Paul Hollywood to sue for physical custody of flashing squirrel

squirrelFollowing the news that Mary Berry will leave Bake Off after this season, co-host Paul Hollywood has insisted that he will fight for custody of the show’s notorious flashing squirrel mascot and its furry little penis

Hollywood, who has co-presented Bake Off with Mary Berry since the show’s inception in 2010 and will remain as judge after its controversial move to Channel 4, is said to be shocked and saddened by Berry’s professional integrity.

But he is determined to keep the show alive, sources say, and considers it imperative that he retains full access to the famous squirrel and its trademark genitals.

“At the end of the day,” said Hollywood, “Bake Off is bigger than Mel and Sue, and it’s bigger than Mary too. It might even be bigger than baking. But what it’s not bigger than is that squirrel’s cock and balls.”

Earlier this year there was an outcry after Bake Off bosses replaced the well-endowed squirrel with a pheasant – a misstep which many speculate led in part to the fatal rift between the BBC and production company Love West.

The genitals of a pheasant are located on its underside and obscured by feathers.