Tag Archives: pun

Funghi; Fun Guy

Text: Question: What do you call a mushroom that likes to party?

Answer: A fun guy.

Context: SV is a freshman at the University of Southern California studying neuroscience. Befitting her scientific major, she remembers hearing this joke is biology class. This is one of her go-to jokes because, as she says, “I’m a sucker for puns, and that’s probably why I remember it.”

Interpretation:  Jokes are a very popular form of folklore, and can take on different forms in different societies. The use of punch-lines is a distinctly American behavior, and is employed in the joke above through the use of a pun. A pun is a joke exploiting different possible meanings of a word, or a joke that uses the fact that there are words that sound alike but have different meanings. There is still a cognitive switch going on, but puns resemble riddles in the way that they propose a solution to a seemingly impossible question and end up creating a magical transformation of meaning through the use of language.

In the example above, the participant is asked to link two seemingly unrelated things in order to derive an answer to the joke. However, the pun reveals that the answer was hiding in a play on words the entire time.

“America versus Yogurt” Joke

Context: The informant is a 19-year-old student from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and he is currently an Art History major at USC. I asked him if his family is one that passes around a lot of jokes, to which he immediately replied, “Oh yeah. My family is really into humor and comedy.” I asked him if he could tell me a joke that a family member tells often. He said, “Here’s one that my dad says like all the time, especially to foreigners, and especially when we’re in another country.”

Piece: Q: “What’s the difference between America and a cup of yogurt?”

A: “If you leave the yogurt alone for long enough, it’ll eventually develop a culture.”

Analysis: This joke is a variation of the common “What’s the difference between…” joke format. A pun on the word “culture” is used to deliver the punchline as the word refers to both bacteria cultures and human culture. This piece is playing off of the common stereotype, or blason populaire, that Americans have no culture. This is a viewpoint that a large number of foreigners, and few Americans themselves, hold against the country, as many think that Americans are lazy, entitled, greedy, and gluttonous. We certainly do live in a society that glorifies excess; however, many would argue that the culture of America is one of the richest in the world since the country is a melting pot of many different cultures, ethnicities, nationalities, races, and religions. This stereotype may have also stemmed, in part, from the fact that the country is relatively new compared to many of the world’s other nations and quite separated from a large part of the Earth.

Nate the Snake

Subject: Folk Speech. Humor.

Collection: “There were two towns that ruled all of the land, and every year… similar to Thanksgiving, they would battle it out for a day. One day the Western Kingdom thought to lace the Eastern Kingdom with explosives while all the townspeople were asleep and then blow up the town the next day, ending the fight completely. The successfully laced the entire Kingdom and hooked up the explosives to a giant lever. However, in the morning the King of the East came over bearing food and gifts as a peace treaty.  The King of the West accepted the peace treaty but felt bad because of the threats to blow up the other city, so he decided to declare peace and just not say anything about the bombs.  The King decided he needed someone to guard the lever so that no radicals or youngsters would mess with it, but the guards stationed at the lever were lazy and didn’t want to be standing around the lever. They missed their families and their children, but one day a snake name Nate came up to a guard and told him that he will watch over the lever. At first the guy was skeptical, but Nate the Snake told him how there’s plenty of land around for him to live in and to catch mice and survive. So Nate became the new guardian. Nate became the hero of the town and was loved by all! People wore Nate the Snake Shirts, celebrated Nate the Snake Day, Nate became the most common name in all the land… Nate lived in this glorious state of love and pride for the work he was doing for his country. However, one night as Nate was doing his rounds at the lever, he saw a truck driving straight towards the lever. Nate thought and thought and thought of what he could do but nothing came to him. All he could do was sit helplessly watching as a truck came barreling towards the lever. At the last minute, however, the truck swerved and hit Nate the Snake. News of Nate’s death shocked the Kingdom but you know what they say… better Nate than Lever.”

Background Info: J. Ingraham is a freshman enrolled at Chapman University pursuing a Bachelor of the Fine Arts in Theater Performance. He attended Dana Hills High School and is still a permanent resident of Laguna Niguel, CA. This story entered my social sphere from a mutual friend who he and I shared performing arts classes with in high school. The first time he heard the story was backstage at a production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Context: I first heard this story in a car on a road trip to Big Bear, CA in December of 2016. It was relayed as friends jumped in to try to one up one another with their personal stories, and for general entertainment. The account of the story was given over email.

Analysis: This narrative builds up to the final punchline and is designed to allow the narrator to embellish as much or as little as they like, while remaining true to the story. I have heard telling in which the narrator went on a rant of all the different merchandise that the town people developed to celebrate Nate the Snake. Another teller gave an in-depth description of the last battle leading up to the Western kingdom lacing their enemy’s land with explosives. The goal is to make the story as absurd and intricate as possible so the simplicity of the punchline rhyming with the proverb, “Better late than never,” achieves its maximum potency.

The story features familiar troupes that locate the story securely in a Western society and one character that subverts expectations: Nate the Snake. First, the narrator locates itself as part of the Western kingdom which is painted as witty yet aggressive. The East, meanwhile, favors peace and gives the West lavish gifts from their land. This plays into ideas in classic literature of the East as languid and indulgent peoples while the West has discipline and democratic practices to keep them vigilant. Second, this was likely developed recently, since it contains references to explosives and a single trigger switch, making the references to kings and kingdoms somewhat out of place. However, I propose this is done to age the story and make it appear like a traditional piece of narrative folklore—playing off ideas of folklore as being something out of medieval Europe. One troupe that is not specific to a Western society is that of talking animals. Humanizing Nate the Snake and embedding him with intelligent thought and complex feeling causes his death to be more objectionable.

Lastly, the character of Nate the Snake is the hero of the story, which contrasts the traditional portrayal of the snake as a villain, or otherwise Satanic, in countries with histories of Abrahamic religions. This aesthetic modernizes the story as more and more people in America practice non-Abrahamic religions. I contend that Nate playing the role of protagonist comes as a surprise, since a snake is expected to be sneaky and deceptive, making the audience feel guilty for expecting Nate to be the villain and the punchline more ironic and shocking. Upon first hearing the story, I believed that the punchline was going to involve Nate betraying the Western kingdom, as snakes usually do. While snakes are animals so biases against them are not thought of as being objectionable, afterward I felt guilty for forcing my assumptions onto him. In this way, the content of Nate the Snake is built off traditional structures that then subvert to afford the joke its greatest effect.

The Louvre Heist

The informant is a second year student at the University of Southern California, studying History. He is from Chicago, IL, and he lived abroad in Rome when he was younger. At USC, he is involved with student affairs and television production.

This piece is one of the informant’s favorite jokes.

“A bunch of art thieves are escaping from the Louvre, and they’ve stolen millions of dollars worth of art, and they’re in this van. So they’re chasing down Paris, you know the cops are right behind them, and news camera are watching them, the eyes of the world are glued to these art thieves. And then, they pull into a gas station, and suddenly stop. The police cars pull right up to them, and encircle them, and boom! They caught ‘em.

So the reporters descend on them like vultures on a corpse, and they’re like, “Why didn’t you just get away? You were, you were by far like, you were gonna make it home free, you were not going to get caught, et cetera. The lead ringleader just looks at the reporter and he says [the informant adopts a French accent], “Uh, ve didn’t have de monay for de gas to make de van go.””


This joke has a long, narrative build up compared to a relatively short punchline. While the joke could still be told effectively in a question and answer format, it is clear that the informant gets a lot of enjoyment from setting the stage and describing a more elaborate and vivid setup. The punchline plays on the slight alterations in English pronunciation by native French speakers as well as the play on words—“monay” with “Monet,” “de gas” with “Degas,” and “van go” with “Van Gogh.” The setting contextualizes the joke further, providing the foundation for the French and art references in the joke.


“Ikau” Pun

The informant is a fellow student and a good friend. While going out for smoothies, she shared her Filipino culture with me.

“I’m going to give you a heads up, so ‘ikau’ mean ‘you.’ So they would say, ‘What’s an example of an ugly cow?’ And then someone would say, ‘what?’ And then they would be like, ‘IKAU!’

Background & Analysis

The informant thinks this joke is really corny, but she still uses it with other Filipino people a lot. She learned it from Filipino friends in grade school, who had probably heard it from older brothers and sisters.

This is a more contemporary joke, because it’s in english, but makes use of a pun in tagalog. This joke most likely then originated among subsequent Filipino-American generation children here in the U.S.

Nautical play on words

Jennifer has been a close friend of my mother’s since childhood and has always been an aunt-like figure in my life. Multiple members of her family have at one point babysat for me as I was growing up and our joint families have often celebrated holidays together. Currently a 55 year old, Christian white (though with Native American Indian heritage on her biological father’s side) woman who works in Escrow in Glendale, CA, she grew up in La Crescenta, CA.

Jennifer also, essentially, grew up on boats. Her family owned a boat, a beach house in Newport Beach area, and a place in Avalon, on Catalina Island, and she frequently spent time on the boat and going to and from Catalina during the summer. Her father also had a fishing charter boat on which he would take out people that wanted to go fishing, and, she said, “my mother would have been involved with boats for forty years.”

She related to me a sort of joke, or pun, that her mother used to make while on the road, driving, that makes a play on nautical vernacular:

“Oh, what’s in the road? A head?”

This is a pun on the phrase “Oh, what’s in the road ahead?” an expression that comes from looking out the window of the car, down the road, and wondering what lies up ahead. However, as a member of a  nautical family, at least in this usage, she’s not referring to a physiological human head, but rather the “head” from a boat, or the toilet. Thus, as Jennifer says about her mother, “By pausing when she does [between the “a” and the “head” of “ahead”], it sounds like there’s a toilet up ahead, in the road.” Jennifer relates that this joke is very typical of her mother, “Things like that, I grew up with, where she [my mother] would constantly…basically, be quizzing us and having fun with words, and seeing how you can change it, change the meaning by simply pausing or stretching a vowel.”

Peanut joke


“So a man was sitting alone at a bar and he kept hearing this whispering that said “hey nice shoes” he looked around and nobody was there he heard “You look nice today” he looked around nobody was there. Then he finally asked the bartender “Am I hearing anything?” and the bartender said, “it’s the peanuts. They’re complementary”


My informant loves to tell this joke because it’s clean and it’s a pun.

Puns are a way of playing with language in a way that messes with how similar words can mean very different things.  In this joke, complementary means both free and giving complements.  I’ve heard lots of jokes where the bartender responds with a pun. It is a popular genre where the idea is that the bartender is the one who knows what is going on while the patron is confused or, a similar one, is where the bartender acts as the frame for the joke.  This may be because a bartender is expected to be the one in control of a bar. They are the ones who control the intake of alcohol and are there to interact with the patrons.

Chinese-English Spider Joke

蜘蛛是什么颜色? 白色. 是白的.
Translated: What color is a spider? White. It is white.

This joke was heard at a Christmas party for a company that was predominantly made up of Chinese people.  This joke requires an understanding of both English and Chinese in order to fully understand the punch line.  At first, the question seems relatively easy as it is just asking the audience what color is a spider.  Audience members tended to yell out colors such as black or brown.  At this point, the informant would yell out “白色” (pronounced “bai se”), which means white in Chinese.  Then after hearing the confusions from the audience members, the informant would say, “是白的” (“It is white” in Engllish), which is pronounced, “Sh bai de.”  As an English speaker can see, that particular phrase sounds like the word “spider.”

My informant told me that he heard this joke first when he was learning English after coming toAmerica.  He told me that he felt a sense of accomplishment when he was able to understand the punch line as it marked his achievement in English comprehension.  For me, this poem is a symbol for the blending of English/American and Chinese culture since the two respective languages are necessary for this joke.

Mood ring joke

The joke goes, “I just lost my mood ring. I don’t even know I feel about it.”

My informant heard it from his best friend and likes it because it reminds of that relationship, which he said is one based on humor. Their dynamic is always fun and things like puns and non sequiturs form a big part of it because they are often absurd and so a departure from the stressful real world. This joke is absurd, too. It’s funny because it implies that without a ring that is supposed to tell you your mood, you don’t know what your mood is or what your feelings are. It plays on the fact that mood rings don’t actually work and to know our feelings, we can simply ask ourselves how we feel. The joke makes the reverse seem true.

I think jokes like that, where we assert something absurd or untrue, are funny especially to the current generation because they’re a very self-aware form of humor (fits in with postmodernism). They don’t sound like typical jokes of the past, which are often very transparently jokes, but instead are just statements that we only know to be jokes because they are so untrue or absurd.

親父ギャグ — Purposely Lame Japanese Jokes

親父 (oyaji) in Japanese is a somewhat derogatory word for middle-aged men (for instance, my informant said that the word 親父 reminds her of a half-drunken forty-ish man sprawled on the couch in a sweaty wife-beater, watching a baseball game). ギャグ (gagu) is derived from the English word gag, and literally just means joke. Translated literally then, 「親父ギャグ」 is “middle-aged man jokes,” which is not far from its contextualized definition.

親父ギャグ aren’t just meant for middle-aged men, however. In short, an 親父ギャグ is simply any extremely lame joke, usually some form of pun or wordplay. There is a stereotype (or a blaison populaire of sorts) in Japan that dictates that middle-aged men are the ones that most often tell these jokes, because they do not care whether other people find it funny, as long as they themselves think that the joke is funny. Indeed, my informant’s father is an 親父ギャグ man, and when he tells one of these jokes, he finds his joke funny, but also finds it funny that none of his audience thought it was funny– in fact, he almost takes pleasure in their raised eyebrows and the shaking of their heads as they say, tiredly but affectionately, “Oh, there he goes again.”

My informant grew up in the city of Naha in Okinawa, Japan, and had 親父ギャグ engrained in her life from a young age by her own father. 親父ギャグ are most times made purposely lame–it seems as if it is a way, almost, of lowering oneself on purpose, so that other people are encouraged to be more themselves as well, a sort of ice-breaker. Look, the performance of it says, there’s no judgment here! Oftentimes 親父ギャグ can liven up a gathering or conversation in that way; it is extremely difficult not to smile or laugh at someone who is laughing hysterically at their own lame joke. When telling an 親父ギャグ, the subliminal aim is not to make everyone laugh at the joke–the point is to have everyone laugh at you laughing at your own joke, making yourself seem more accessible to everyone around you. In that sense, it is often a great act of bravery to tell an 親父ギャグ (unless, of course, you think it’s actually funny, and are embarrassed when nobody laughs at the joke itself). Both parties need to accept that the joke is lame, and laugh about it.

Some examples of 親父ギャグ from my informant’s father, which may or may not retain their humor through the translation (not that there was much humor in them to begin with):

A: “How do you say sidewalk in Japanese?”
B: 歩道? (pronounced hodou, sidewalk, in Japanese.)
C: なるほどう! (pronounced naruhodou, means I SEE! in Japanese)

Get it? Or this:

konnyaku, konnyakuu
I’ll eat konnyaku tonight.
(This is funny, or supposed to be funny, because the food is konnyaku, and “I’m gonna eat tonight” casually is “konya (tonight) kuu (eat)” so they sound almost exactly the same.)

These are the kind of jokes that would get glazed-over expressions, silence, and low “ohhhhhhh my goodness…….” kinds of reactions if told in America. The difference is, that these jokes’ significance rest in their very lameness.

In Japan, a society governed by relatively strict social hierarchies and characterized by an almost extreme amount of politeness, these lame jokes are a way to let off some steam, and temporarily cast off any forms of judgment. 親父ギャグ are relaxing, in a way, because they do not require much effort from either party–the performer is not really trying to be funny, and all the audience needs to do is roll their eyes a bit, and smile.

ANNOTATION: In Japan, there is a popular children’s book series called 「かいけつゾロリ」(Kaiketsu Zorori), published by Poplar Publishing. The original books were also made into a feature-length film, a comic, and an anime. In this series, the fox protagonist of the story (and a wanted criminal) keeps traveling around the world with the goal of becoming the “King of Pranks.” This fox protagonist, Zorori, is the owner of the ぶっくらこいた (Bukkura Koita), a book that tells 親父ギャグ (oyaji gyagu) so bad that they physically freeze all those who hear it. In the series, he often uses this books to freeze or confuse his pursuers and opponents in order to make a quick get-away. That 親父ギャグ are used in a children’s series to add humor, then, illustrates the way 親父ギャグ are often viewed in Japanese society–something to make fun of, a distraction of sorts, but something people enjoy and find humorous all the same.

<Hara, Yutaka. Kaiketsu Zorori No Doragon Taiji. Kaiketsu Zorori. Tokyo: Poplar Publishing, 1995.>

<原, ゆたか. かいけつゾロリのドラゴンたいじ. かいけつゾロリ. Tokyo: Poplar Publising, 1995.>