Back in the early 1990s, I was reading Eric Johnson's A Treasury of Humor (Prometheus, 1989). Johnson was the former headmaster at an elite private K-12 school in Philadelphia. A joke on page 18 struck me because I recognized that I could modify it slightly and use it at the fortieth wedding anniversary of my parents, where we were having a bit of a roast.
The reason I am recounting this experience is that it highlights how the same joke in a slightly different social context can have a much different effect. This joke told between two people gets the laugh on the incongruous ending. However, told before a large crowd that has been warmed up by other speakers and their jokes, the laugh comes on the disparagement line. So in a small setting, the dominant aspect is the joke's incongruity, but told in a large setting, the dominant aspect is the social function of disparagement.
Here is the joke:
Well, this is a story from when my parents moved back to town with their two children in the 1950s. My father had set up practice as the area's obstetrician and gynocologist. The local high school principal came to him and asked him if he would give a talk to some of the high school girls about human reproduction, and, well, sex. He was a bit nervous but agreed, and the date was set.Some features of this version should be noted: Although the mistaken schema in the fictional mind of the principal belittles the husband's sexual prowess, it does not require that husband was cockolded or that the woman was unfaithful. (Later I found some variations on this joke that did require cockolding and infidelity.) The principal's use of the word "appropriate" should be a signal to the wife that he talk was not about sailing. The last sentence of the joke has a strong setup and punchline: one of the ropes on a standard sailboat is called "the sheet." The mention of a sheet reinforces in the imagined mind of the principal the schema (or committed belief) where the wife really is talking about sex. The final punch suggests that the husband was wearing a hat the third time he had sex, which is absurdly ridiculous. And the ending creates such an absurd image in the mind of the principal that the listener of the joke might well assume that the truth will be sorted out between the fictional principal and wife, and that the husband's humiliation will be temporary.
When he was going to the event, my mother asked him where he was going, and he said he was going to give a talk at the high school. She asked him what about, and, embarrassed, he said, "Sailing." "Sailing?" she said incredulously. "Sailing," he insisted.
The next day, the principal ran into my mother in town. He told her that my father's talk was very good and so appropriate. She said, "Well, I don't know why you asked him to talk about that. I mean, he's only ever done it three times. The first time, he was sick to his stomach; the second time, he got all tangled up in the sheet; and the third time, his hat blew off!"
The joke worked for my father, because he was an overworked doctor who owned a sailboat, but who did not have enough free time to become a skilled sailor. Also, he was a private person who would not want to be embarrassed. Although he did not as a general rule lie to cover up his behavior, he was very guarded in areas that could be embarrassing, so one could imagine him avoiding the truth if it would be an embarrassing admission.
I do not have much experience telling a joke to a large gathering. When I practiced this joke with individuals, no one laughed at the line, "he's only ever done it three times." However, they laughed heartily when the hat blew off in the final snap of absurd incongruity. So the incongruous aspect of the joke was dominant.
However, in front of a crowd of people who knew the targets of the joke well, and knew that the specifics of the joke fit their personalities well, the line "he's only ever done it three times" caused the house to explode with laughter. My mother especially laughed a solid thirty seconds. I could barely eke out the joke's true punchline, which hardly anyone could hear or understand.
So the reception of a joke changes dramatically depending on the context of the telling. A crowd has different expectations than a lone individual does. To the individual, the absurdist ending and the cognitive surprise were what counted. The disparaging "three times" did not generate mirth. To the crowd, the delight in the ridicule of the target took hold as the dominant aspect of the joke. The joke changed from being absurdist and playful to being primarily and aggressively disparaging. Perhaps in the public space, dignity and status are of higher importance, and the disparagement was therefore more salient and fraught with tension.
The contrast in the reception was very educational.
I thought my father would enjoy the joke, and if he had heard it alone, he might have. As it was, he was able to maintain a calm exterior, but the embarrassment so upset him he destroyed the recording of the event. At the time, he just politely said to my mother, "Well, perhaps it is just as well we only had the one son."