Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar

Making trouble today for a better tomorrow…

Betsy Devine: Funny ha-ha and/or funny peculiar header image 2

Entries from March 2003

Peter, Donald, Dennis, and Shoshana

March 31st, 2003 · Comments Off on Peter, Donald, Dennis, and Shoshana

Peter Arnett deserved to be fired for his propaganda boost to the Iraqis:

“The first war plan has failed because of Iraqi resistance….Clearly, the American war planners misjudged the determination of the Iraqi forces.”

Furthermore, Peter Arnett is wrong about US problems. Seymour Hersch, in the April 7 New Yorker, has the ugly details:

According to a dozen or so military men I spoke to, Rumsfeld simply failed to anticipate the consequences of protracted warfare. He put Army and Marine units in the field with few reserves and an insufficient number of tanks and other armored vehicles….Much of the supply of Tomahawk guided missiles has been expended. “The Marines are worried as hell,” the former intelligence official went on. “They’re all committed, with no reserves, and they’ve never run the lavs”—light armored vehicles—”as long and as hard” as they have in Iraq. There are serious maintenance problems as well. “The only hope is that they can hold out until reinforcements come.”

Hersch’s article details how Rumsfeld gave our trained military leaders the same rude brush-off he handed to France and Germany. Rumsfeld’s arrogance endangered our troops much more than Arnett’s idiocy–and Rumsfeld deserves to be fired just as publicly as Arnett.

Shoshana: POW - SPC Shoshana Nyree Johnson, 30, of El Paso, Texas, is listed as a POW in Iraq.  She is a 1991 graduate of Andress High School.  Johnson is a single mother with a 2-year-old daughter, Janelle. She is a cook with the 507th. Shoshana Nyree Johnson signed up for the US Army as a cook. While Shoshana and her unit prepared to risk their lives in Iraq, Dennis Hastert and other Republicans on the House Budget Committee raced to show their support by funding those tax breaks for stockholders with billions of dollars in cuts from Veterans’ benefits. An outcry from veterans’ organizations saved their benefits–for now. Dennis Hastert treated US soldiers and their families like dirt–and Hastert deserves to be fired just as publicly as Arnett.

Dennis Hastert and Donald Rumsfeld still hold their comfy jobs. Peter Arnett has a new, less-comfy job with a British tabloid. Shoshana Johnson is a POW. In El Paso, Texas, her two-year-old daughter is waiting for mom to come home.

Tags: Good versus Evil

Arrogance, jokes, meta-offense, and more jokes

March 30th, 2003 · Comments Off on Arrogance, jokes, meta-offense, and more jokes

A man walks into a bar, takes a seat on the next-to-last stool, turns to the empty stool right next to him, and says “Miss, can I buy you a drink?” For the rest of the evening, he chats and flirts with a non-existent woman sitting beside him. The next night, same story. And the next night, same story again. Finally the bartender comes over and asks, “Why do you keep talking to that empty stool, night after night after night?”

The man replies, “I am a physicist. I’m relying on a quantum mechanical possibility that a beautiful woman may tunnel in from some extra dimension and materialize on that stool. If that happens–well, I’ll have the inside track with her.”

“That’s ridiculous,” says the bartender. “Plenty of women come to this bar every night. You’re presentable and very articulate–if you tried to chat up one of the women here, she might be interested.”

The physicist laughs. “Yeah, right–how likely is that?”

There are two ways to read the last line of this joke. One reading makes the physicist arrogant–“Oh, bartender, what do you know of quantum mechanics?” The other makes the physicist abashed–“I’m such a nerd, no woman would talk with me.” I find the first reading funnier. The banana peel on the sidewalk could trip anyone–but it’s more fun when Mr. Snob takes a spill.

In the tiny world I live in (physics academia), jokes about people who are stupid are “dean jokes”, and jokes about people who are arrogant are “theoretical physics jokes.” For example:

The theoretical physicist’s prayer: “Dear God, make me less arrogant–and may I remind you that the OED defines ‘arrogant’ as follows….

I’m thinking about my own arrogance yesterday in claiming a right to tell “meta-offensive” jokes. That is, I don’t like jokes that hurt people’s feelings, but I do claim a right to stand up against any group’s loud self-importance. Today, I want to step back from yesterday’s claim.

First, I know I have my own prejudice. If left-wing Democrats say, “Hey, that’s not funny!”–chances are, I too just plain don’t get the joke. If right-wing Republicans don’t like a joke–chances are, I still could think it’s very funny.

Second, I admit the line between “hurting feelings” and “challenging power” is artificial. If I tell a joke that implies group xxx can’t hurt me, how can that not insult people who have a strong allegiance to xxx?

In conclusion, I don’t like jokes whose point is that group xxx is dishonest or sub-human. I do claim a right to tell jokes that mention group xxx as if it had a real share of human fallibility. And I do admit, in all this, to my very own share of human fallibility.

Betsy’s quote of the day: “Without good humour, learning and bravery can only confer that superiority which swells the heart of the lion in the desert, where he roars without reply, and ravages without resistance.” (Samuel Johnson, 1709-1784)

Tags: Learn to write funny

When Mozart was my age, he was already dead.

March 27th, 2003 · Comments Off on When Mozart was my age, he was already dead.

Ever wonder about
Things Other People Accomplished When They Were Your Age
? At the age of 56:

“George Granville Leveson-Gower, duke of Sutherland, destroyed the homes of Scottish Highlanders and drove thousands of residents off the land to make room for sheep.”

Did Georgie have modern zoning boards to deal with? Noooooo! But I still feel so inadequate (sob)…

(Thanks for the link–even though I may now be traumatized for life–to Dave Barry.)

Tags: Life, the universe, and everything

Gender-bent insult jokes (with Dave Winer)

March 27th, 2003 · 1 Comment

In response to my “5 important things, 4 men” joke, I got some insightful email from Dave Winer. Dave agrees there’s no easy inverse for women’s jokes about men. Jokes insulting men are allowed, he points out, giving this example

Q: What’s the diff betw a man and a cucumber?

A: A man can take out the garbage.

Dave asks, “So what’s the equiv joke about women?”

Hi Dave– I think you’re right that people are more wary about woman-bashing than about man-bashing. But there are plenty of woman-bashing jokes. If you google “better than a woman”–3,700 plus hits–you can find pages of “Why is xxx better than a woman?” jokes, written by horny teenage guys showing off for each other and hoping to sound like emperors of sexy.

Most group-vs.-group jokes (women vs men, MIT vs Harvard, Irish vs WASP, etc.) have punchlines that flatter “Group A” and make fun of “Group B.” Liberals are more comfortable hearing jokes that flatter the underdog group. Many people feel hurt by jokes that make fun of their own group, and some get angry.

Some 20-year-old research claims that men prefer jokes about sex to any other kind–while women prefer jokes about sex only when angry. I wonder if the researcher was using “jokes about sex” to mean jokes like the cucumber one… whose “message” is that the teller can pick a man as she would a cucumber, and give him servile jobs when the sex is done. Yeah, right.


There are real “guys’ jokes” out there that make me laugh. I got in trouble in my first book for including that joke (toned down but still funny) about the polar bear and the bottle of whiskey.

Here’s another “guys’ joke” I like:

A man boards an airplane and takes his seat. As he settles in, he glances up and sees the most beautiful woman boarding the plane. He soon realizes that she is headed straight toward his seat. A wave of nervous anticipation sweeps over him. Lo and behold, she takes the seat right beside his. Anxious to strike up a conversation, he blurts out, “So where are you flying to today?” She turns and smiles and says, “I’m giving a talk to the Sexual Freedom League.”

Whoa! He swallows hard–here’s the most gorgeous woman he’s ever seen, sitting right next to him, and she’s talking about sex! Struggling to maintain his outward cool, he calmly asks, “And what’s your talk about?” She looks into his eyes, and says, “I plan to debunk some of the popular myths about sexuality.” “Really,” he says, swallowing hard, again. “And what myths are those?”

She explains: “Well, one popular myth is that African American men are the most well-endowed. In my experience, the Native American is the most likely to possess this trait. Another popular myth is that Frenchmen are the best lovers. I have found, instead that men of Jewish descent make the very best lovers, on average.” “Very interesting,” the man responds. Suddenly, the woman looks embarrassed and starts to blush. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I feel awkward discussing this with you–why, I don’t even know your name.”

The man extends his hand and replies, “It’s Tonto. Tonto Goldstein.”

Why do I call this a guys’ joke? The punchline celebrates a guy who is about to have sex. Hey, I feel as if I’m on his team–because he is clearly a tongue-tied nerd (like me), and therefore an underdog. Besides, the woman involved is about to have sex (if she wants to) with a smart guy who thinks she’s really gorgeous. How bad can that be?

Tags: Learn to write funny

Gendered jokes: Stereotypes and humor

March 27th, 2003 · Comments Off on Gendered jokes: Stereotypes and humor

Joke 9,099 from the Internet


An English professor instructed the freshmen as follows:

Today we will experiment with a new form called the tandem story. The process is simple. Each person will pair off with the person sitting to his or her immediate right. One of you will then write the first paragraph of a short story. The partner will read the first paragraph and then add another paragraph to the story. The first person will then add a third paragraph, and so on back and forth. Remember to reread what has been written each time in order to keep the story coherent. There is to be absolutely NO talking, and anything you wish to say must be written on the paper. The story is over when both agree a conclusion has been reached.
The following was actually turned in by Rebecca (last name deleted), and Jim (last name deleted).
STORY (first paragraph by Rebecca)
At first, Laurie couldn’t decide which kind of tea she wanted. The chamomile, which used to be her favorite for lazy evenings at home, now reminded her too much of Carl, who once said, in happier times, that he liked chamomile. But she felt she must now, at all costs, keep her mind off Carl. His possessiveness was suffocating, and if she thought about him too much her asthma started acting up again. So chamomile was out of the question.

————————————————– —-
(Second paragraph by Jim)
Meanwhile, Advance Sergeant Carl Harris, leader of the attack squadron now in orbit over Skylon 4, had more important things to think about than the neuroses of an air-headed asthmatic bimbo named Laurie with whom he had spent one sweaty night over a year ago. “A.S. Harris to Geostation 17”, he said into his transgalactic communicator, “polar orbit established. No sign of resistance so far…” But before he could sign off, a bluish particle beam flashed out of nowhere and blasted a hole through his ship’s cargo bay. The jolt from the direct hit sent him flying out of his seat and across the cockpit.

————————————————– ——–

He bumped his head and died almost immediately but not before he felt one last pang of regret for psychically brutalizing the one woman who had ever had feelings for him. Soon afterwards, Earth stopped its pointless hostilities towards the peaceful farmers of Skylon 4. “Congress Passes Law Permanently Abolishing War and Space Travel,” Laurie read in her newspaper one morning. The news simultaneously excited her and bored her. She stared out the window, dreaming of her youth, when the days had passed hurriedly and carefree, with no newspapers to read, no television to distract her from her sense of innocent wonder at all the beautiful things around her. “Why must one lose one’s innocence to become a woman?” she pondered wistfully.

————————————————– ——-
Little did she know, but she had less than 10 seconds to live. Thousands of miles above the city, the Anu’udrian mother ship launched the first of its lithium fusion missiles. The dim-witted wimpy peaceniks who pushed the Unilateral Aerospace Disarmament Treaty through the congress had left Earth a defenseless target for the hostile alien empires who were determined to destroy the human race. Within two hours after the passage of the treaty the Anu’udrian ships were on course for Earth, carrying enough firepower to pulverize the entire planet. With no one to stop them, they swiftly initiated their diabolical plan. The lithium fusion missile entered the atmosphere unimpeded. The President, in his top-secret mobile submarine headquarters on the ocean floor off the coast of Guam, felt the inconceivably massive explosion, which vaporized poor, stupid, Laurie and 85 million other Americans. The President slammed his fist on the conference table. “We

This is absurd. I refuse to continue this mockery of literature. My writing partner is a violent, chauvinistic semi-literate adolescent.

————————————————– ——–
Yeah? Well, you’re a self-centered tedious neurotic whose attempts at writing are the literary equivalent of Valium. “Oh shall I have chamomile tea? Or shall I have some other sort of stupid tea??? Oh no, I’m such an air headed bimbo who reads too many Danielle Steele novels.”




A+ I really liked this one.

Yeah, like the professor, I really liked this one. Some jokes, and some stereotypes, are meant to be hurtful–that’s not the case here. (Though you might object to the stereotyped professor…) Stereotypes are what make this joke work. That’s because human beings laugh together to celebrate a shared sense of recognition. I really like the idea of bigger and more inclusive groups of people relaxing enough to be able to laugh together.

Tags: Learn to write funny

Grandma, what big Astroturf you have!

March 26th, 2003 · Comments Off on Grandma, what big Astroturf you have!

Remember the wolf wrapped up in Grandma’s nightie? He’s now a role model for top marketing droids. As they spread their slick prose out over the Web, imagining we’ll all imagine they’re “just plain folks”– let’s imagine instead we’re Red Riding Hood checking out someone who claims to be Grandma. Marketing droids may not have great big teeth, but they do make some very obvious mistakes:

  1. Droids ask for trust but dodge verifiability. The author of Microsoft’s “I just switched from Apple” story (outed by Slashdotters in October 2002) larded her prose with “personal” details and cute little interjections like “Girl Scout’s honor.” She also kept her identity secret, used a stock image as if it were her own photo, and turned out to have been promoting Microsoft products for years.
  2. Droids love fake ultra-amateur effects. Check out the scrawly “graffiti” on Dr. Pepper’s faux blog for Raging Cow. OK, handwritten scrawls on a piece of paper might be the work of a real amateur. But to get such a scrawl into a 4K gif with a transparent background…Grandma, is that you? Who went out and bought you an art department?
  3. Droids can’t resist adding stuff that Grandma wouldn’t. That Republican canned-letters-to-smalltown-papers campaign reeked of obvious spoilers. You can picture a non-droid Grandma writing “President Bush is demonstrating genuine leadership”–a little pompous, maybe, but it’s possible. But how likely is she to cite average tax cuts to four significant figures? The fake “Microsoft switcher” couldn’t resist urging readers to buy, right away, Microsoft’s most expensive package. She also jumped schizophrenically, back and forth, between oh-so-sincere gushing personal memoir and complex step-by-step switching procedures.

I notice, since starting this story, that Dr. Pepper has stopped pretending their page is a blog. It’s now a webpage that admits it’s an ad. I give lots of credit for this to webloggers who protested their original deception. In this case we bloggers played not only Red Riding Hood but the woodsman with the ax. Both roles are needed, with all those wolves out there.

Betsy’s quote of the day for earnest droids: “The most important thing is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” Jean Giraudoux

Tags: Not what it seems...

Gendering jokes: Sex hahahaha!

March 25th, 2003 · Comments Off on Gendering jokes: Sex hahahaha!

Five Secrets to a Great Relationship
1. It is important to find a man who works around the house, occasionally cooks and cleans and who has a job.
2. It is important to find a man who makes you laugh.
3. It is important to find a man who is dependable and doesn’t lie.
4. It is important to find a man who’s good in bed and who loves to have sex with you.
5. It is important that these four men never meet.

This joke about sexual politics makes women laugh, and makes men smile politely. Would it work with opposite sign if I change the genders?

1. It is important to find a woman who works around the house, occasionally cooks and cleans and who has a job.
2. It is important to find a woman who makes you laugh.
3. It is important to find a woman who is dependable and doesn’t lie.
4. It is important to find a woman who’s good in bed and who loves to have sex with you.
5. It is important that these four women never meet.

This gendering of the joke just makes us puzzled. The original is funny because it invites us to laugh at gripes women often share about single men. The revision leaves us puzzled–who’s this about? To make the re-gendered joke funny, you have to fill it with men’s gripes about single women. Er–I don’t want to go there.

I’m working a book of science humor (my second), and I think a lot about re-gendering jokes. Good old science jokes reflect a bad old science world, where women are secretaries, angry wives, or unattainable objects of hopeless lust. I want my book to reflect the new science reality–about half the undergrads at MIT are now women–so I need to find ways to make the world of science look less like a boys-only clubhouse, while still keeping funny jokes funny.

Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, and sometimes, well–do you know the joke about 3 people sharing a row of seats on an airplane? There’s a surgeon, a malpractice lawyer, and an HMO executive. The surgeon, who has the aisle seat, volunteers to get cokes for the two others. Instead of reciprocating that kindness, they spit in the surgeon’s shoes when he (note the he) takes them off to sleep. Yes, I thought about re-gendering the surgeon–but it doesn’t work with the punchline. “The surgeon puts on his shoes and realizes what happened. He looks at the other two and says, ‘How long must this enmity go on? It’s wrong, I tell you, wrong–this spitting in shoes–this urinating in cokes.”

Tags: Learn to write funny

Does this joke offend? Or does it meta-offend?

March 25th, 2003 · Comments Off on Does this joke offend? Or does it meta-offend?

Then Jesus took his disciples up the mountain and taught them, saying:

Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are the meek.
Blessed are they that mourn.
Blessed are the merciful.
Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for justice.
Blessed are…

Then Simon Peter said, “Should we write this down?”
And Andrew said, “Do we have to know this?”
And James said, “Will this be on the final exam?”
And Phillip said, “What was that thing about the meek?”
And John said, “The other disciples didn’t have to learn this.”
And Judas said, “What does this have to do with the real life?”

Then one of the Pharisees present asked to see Jesus’ lesson plans and inquired of Jesus his terminal objectives in the cognitive domain… and Jesus wept.

Is this joke offensive? Maybe, to someone who thinks lesson plans are sacred. The point of the joke is to invite shared laughter about challenges teachers face.

But it’s easy to see that this joke could “meta-offend” –a word I made up to describe something in the real world that has no name. “Meta-offense” is a response that claims to be offense but in fact is anger or calculated politics. People get meta-offended by a remark, and try very hard to make you sorry for it, to prove to the world that they have power to punish.*

Kind-hearted people steer clear of jokes that offend. But meta-offending is a different issue. I don’t mind meta-offending groups that try to make too many claims. Kowtowing to every possible sacred cow would be sooooo much work–and it’s just not funny!

*Example of racial offense and meta-offense.

Betsy’s quotes of the day:
“The first duty of a revolutionary is to get away with it. ” (Abbie Hoffman)
“If all people were just, no one would need to be brave.” (Agesilaus, 444-360 BCE)

Tags: Learn to write funny

Gendering jokes, and being fantastic in bed

March 23rd, 2003 · 2 Comments

1.You’re at a party and you see an attractive man. You go over to him and say: “I’m fantastic in bed.” This is Direct Marketing.

2.You’re at a party with a group of friends and you see an attractive man. One of your friends goes over to him and says: “That girl over there is fantastic in bed.” This is Publicity.

3.You’re at a party and you see an attractive man. You ask for his phone number. The next day you call him and say: “I’m fantastic in bed.” This is Telemarketing.

4.You’re at a party and you see an attractive man you already know. You go over to him and say: “Do you remember how good I am in bed?” This is Customer Relationship Management.

5.You’re at a party and you see an attractive man. You get up, smooth your dress, go over and serve him a drink. You straighten his tie seductively and say: “I’m fantastic in bed.” This is Public Relations.

6.You’re at a party and you see an attractive man. He comes over to you and says: “I hear you’re fantastic in bed.” This is Branding, the reputation of the name.

7. On your way to a party, you realize many attractive men live nearby. You start blasting your horn, roll down your car window, and drive slowly, yelling for all the world to hear, “I–AM–FANTASTIC–IN–BED!” This is spam.

I love double-barreled jokes–jokes that make you laugh, and then laugh again. This is a multi-barreled joke, with many successive re-authors including me.

Is this joke sexist? If you said yes, would it still be sexist if I switch the genders, so that a man keeps telling women he meets that he’s very good in bed? There are people who would see either version as offensively sexist, and if one of those people would tell me how to write jokes about sex that aren’t sexist, I’d sure like to know!

Tags: Learn to write funny

Oink oink, ha ha, according to David Brooks

March 22nd, 2003 · 1 Comment

Have you noticed that male chauvinism is making a comeback? Thirty years after the feminist revolution, if you look at the rap videos on MTV or BET, you’ll find that “ho” and “bitch” are just about the nicest words used to describe young women.

That’s just the opening of
“The Return of the Pig”, an essay by David Brooks in the April issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine. So how is the Left defending women, including women of color? The Left can’t figure out what to do, says Brooks:

Many progressive thinkers, having inherited a century of radical European thought, assume that the most oppressive and reactionary parts of society are the rich, the powerful, and the well-born. …The rise of misogynistic rap culture dramatizes the inadequacy of that approach. … Rap and hip-hop came from the urban lower class. N.W.A., 2 Live Crew, Tupac Shakur, and Eminem … emerged authentically from the streets. …

It is the least privileged parts of society that are often the most sexist, reactionary and even materialistic. We have a dynamic urban culture that treats women like whores and that regards owning a Mercedes as the highest possible human aspiration, and the leading articulators of progressive opinion have almost nothing to say about it…

[Leftists] can’t seem to bring themselves to admit out loud that their most effective ideological enemies have turned out to be the same underprivileged people they wanted to rescue from exploitation.

Brooks may be stymied, but the Left need not be.
I found this eloquent bumpersticker on David Weinberger’s blog. To me, it embodies the way Leftists can get past the dead end where they, by which I mean we, are stuck.

Moral absolutes–they’re easy to ridicule when they’re the “absolute” morals of born-again Baptists from Birmingham, Alabama. But we on the Left have our own cherished absolutes–and we need to refresh our ambivalence about them too.

Is any remark claimed as “authentically Black” immune from criticism? If so, does that make any XX type who ever had sex a ho? Or should we switch perspective, and say any statement that degrades women is evil, deserving of powerful retaliation? If so, does that mean we should demand lip service to middle-class ideals before any kid from the ghetto gets to speak?

No–absolutes make for fast and powerful moral judgments, but not for intelligent moral judgments. Because….

Moral means ambivalent.

Betsy’s quote of the day:

‘You come of the Lord Adam and the Lady Eve,’ said Aslan. ‘And that is both honour enough to erect the head of the poorest beggar, and shame enough to bow the shoulders of the greatest emperor in earth.’

(C.S. Lewis, Prince Caspian)

Tags: Life, the universe, and everything