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.