COVID-19 with a Smiley Face

We probably all know the aphorism “Laughter is the best medicine.” In this era of COVID-19, mental health professionals often remind us of the importance of maintaining our courage by maintaining our sense of humor. People love telling jokes, which is one way of doing this. Computer scientists and programmers are no exception to this truism. Neither are they exceptions to the dictum that the best jokes are usually the shortest jokes. Among professional comedians, these little gems are known as “one-liners.”

One-liners are pithy humorous observations told in a single sentence or perhaps two at the most. At their best, they are a distillation of everything humor is all about, wrapped up in an extremely small package. In this respect, they could be considered a comedic example of Occam’s Razor.

Occam’s Razor, also known as the Law of Parsimony, is one of the pillars on which good science is based. In essence it says the simplest solution is usually the best solution. In science we often highly praise hypotheses, theories, and applications for their “elegant simplicity.” In computing, we very much appreciate an insight that fundamentally simplifies what previously seemed to be a clunky, insurmountable barrier to advancement of the science. We also praise the elegant simplicity of an algorithm with minimal steps that speeds up computation while reinforcing accuracy.

But if the one-liner is such a highly appreciated form of humor, why does it seem that it often falls flat when we try to use it? I believe there are two reasons.

  • First, a single one-liner is like an orphan. Often it is only when one-liners come together fast and furious that they reach the apogee of comedic perfection.

Perhaps the best exemplar of this truism is Leslie Townes “Bob” Hope. Bob Hope was world-renowned for his monologues featuring a rapid series of one-liners. However, taken singly and told by someone else, they would often fall flat.

This was not because Hope was a comedic genius, i.e. only Hope could properly tell Hope’s jokes. It was more the fact that stringing together so many one-liners rapidly in a 5-10 minute monologue created an irresistible comedic atmosphere. Almost before you finished laughing at one joke, you were already being set up to laugh at the next one. Rattling off funny observations creates the expectation of laughter. You know you are going to laugh, so you are primed to do so.

By contrast, telling a single one-liner, no matter how inherently funny it may be, doesn’t benefit from this propitious comedic environment. A single one-liner must stand or fall totally on its own, which is why so often it does fall.

  • Second, a one-liner told singly often fails because being so condensed, it assumes considerable knowledge on the part of the audience. With a longer joke, you can set the scene to be certain that the listeners will understand the context of the joke. However, with a one-liner, either the listeners immediately understand—or they don’t.

In short, whether a one-liner succeeds or fails depends as much, and perhaps more, on the listener than on the teller.

Comedians who specialize in one-liners usually have to create a personality and backstory because generally they are performing to heterogeneous audiences. About the only thing the people who come to hear the comedian have in common is their desire to be entertained.

However, if the audience is largely homogeneous, this is not always necessary. You may assume that most, if not all, of the audience will be au fait with the subject matter. One-liners aimed at a homogenous audience have another advantage. They are often just as funny when written as when heard aloud. So if you are blessed to be a professional in computing and computer science, you will probably find the following pithy observations about the subject funny, if not hilarious, with no further explanation.

The first computer dates back to Adam and Eve. It was an Apple with limited memory, just one byte—and then everything crashed.

Maybe if we start telling people the brain is an app they will start using it.

I wonder what my parents did to fight boredom before the internet. I asked my 17 brothers and sisters and they didn’t know either.

According to my calculations, the problem doesn’t exist.

2 + 2 = 5 for extremely large values of 2.

Computers are not intelligent. They only think they are.

My software never has bugs. It just develops random features.

As a computer, I find your faith in technology amusing.

Windows: Just another pane in the glass.

E-mail returned to sender—insufficient voltage.

I hit the CTRL key but I’m still not in control!

Hit any user to continue.

Will the information superhighway have any rest stops?

Disk full. Press F1 to belch.

On a clear disk you can seek forever.

Beware of programmers who carry screwdrivers.

I went to a street where the houses were numbered 8k, 16k, 32k, 64k, 128k, 256k, and 512k. It was a trip down memory lane.

“Debugging” is like being the detective in a crime drama where you are also the murderer.

Programming is like sex. One mistake and you have to support it for the rest of your life.

A programmer is someone who puts two glasses on his bedside table before going to sleep. A full one in case he gets thirsty, and an empty one in case he doesn’t.

What did the router say to the doctor?

“It hurts when IP.”

Why is it programmers always confuse Halloween with Christmas? Because 31 OCT = 25 DEC.

To err is human, but to really screw things up you need a computer.

A TV can insult your intelligence, but nothing rubs it in like a computer.

A clean house is the sure sign of a broken computer.

Microsecond: The time it takes for your state-of-the-art computer to become obsolete.

Keyboard: The standard way to generate computer errors.

Mouse: An input device to make computer errors easier to generate.

Question: How many software engineers does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: None. It’s a hardware problem.

Question: How many Microsoft support technicians does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: None. “We have an exact copy of the light bulb here, and it seems to be working just fine.”

The Essence of Humor

As scientists in general, and computer scientists in particular, we recognize the importance of specifying the meaning of the words we use. The one-liner is a particularly interesting form of humor. But what do we really know about humor itself?

The short answer is, not very much. We know some people seem to be inherently humorous but we don’t know why. Even they often don’t know why. “I just do things and say things that make people laugh.” Yet others can do essentially the same things and say essentially the same things, and no one laughs, or even smiles.

Thinkers throughout the ages have been trying to define humor and describe its mechanisms, but without much agreement. There are a number of hypotheses about humor, which at certain points coincide and at other points widely separate.

It would be tedious to explore this subject in depth here. However, learning about something is often aided by listening to the comments of people who practice it. Here are some pithy quotations about humor from a plethora of people who are generally credited with possessing a good sense of humor and having put it to good use. You may not recognize all of them. If you want to know more about any of the personalities cited, you can easily find them on the internet.

“The secret to humor is surprise.” —Aristotle
“The gods too are fond of a joke.” —Aristotle
“Among those whom I like, I can find no common denominator. But among those I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.” —W. H. Auden
“Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” —Francis Bacon
“There seems to be no lengths to which humorless people will not go to analyze humor. It seems to worry them.” —Robert Benchley
“When humor goes, there goes civilization.” —Erma Bombeck
“Humor is something that thrives between man's aspirations and his limitations.” —Victor Borge
“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” —Victor Borge
“The most wasted day of all is that in which we have not laughed.” —Sebastian Roch Nicolas Chamfort
“In the end, everything is a gag.” —Charlie Chaplin
“You cannot deal with the most serious things in the world unless you understand the amusing.” —Winston Churchill
“A joke is a very serious thing.” —Winston Churchill
“The kind of humor I like is the thing that makes me laugh for 5 seconds, and think for 10 minutes.” —William Davis
“Humor is by far the most significant activity of the human brain.” —Edward de Bono
“Humor is the instinct for taking pain playfully.” —Max Eastman
“Humor prevents one from becoming a tragic figure even though he/she is involved in tragic events.” —E.T. Eberhart
“If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.” —Mahatma Gandhi
“Nothing shows a man's character more than what he laughs at.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“Humor is a rubber sword. It allows you to make a point without drawing blood.” —Mary Hirsch
“Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing moving at different speeds.” —William James
“Learn to laugh at your troubles and you'll never run out of things to laugh at.” —Lyn Karol
“Dictators fear laughter more than bombs.” —Arthur Koestler
“With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.” —Abraham Lincoln
“Humor is reason gone mad.” —Groucho Marx
“A sense of humor is a major defense against minor troubles.” —Mignon McLaughlin
“Humor is a reminder that no matter how high the throne one sits on, one sits on one's bottom.”  Taki

“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” —James Thurber

“Humor is despair refusing to take itself seriously.” —Arland Ussher
“This world is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” —Horace Walpole
“Humor results when society says you can't scratch certain things in public, but they itch in public.” —Tom Walsh
“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” —E.B. White
“Many a true word is said in jest.” —Unknown origin
“Humor is the mind tickling the body.” —Unknown origin

Samuel Langhorne Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, was a recognized master of the humorist’s craft. Here is what he had to say about what makes funny things funny.

  • Laughter without a tinge of philosophy is but a sneeze of humor. Genuine humor is replete with wisdom.
  • Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.
  • The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.
  • Wit and humor—if any difference, it is in duration—lightning and electric light. Same material, apparently; but one is vivid, and can do damage—the other fools along and enjoys elaboration.

And now for something completely different (allusion to Monty Python intended). Here are two jokes that require some cultural background to be funny, but certainly not beyond most people’s general education. The first is a more traditional joke; the second is a very clever one-liner.

  • In the early 1700s, a traveler arrives in Cremona looking to buy the best violin he can find. On a street of violin makers, the first shop is owned by Guarneri family. In its spacious window is a large sign with majestic calligraphy announcing: Best Violins in Italy. A bit farther is a second shop belonging to the Gagliano family. In its even more spacious window is an even more grandiose calligraphic sign announcing: Best Violins in the World. In a cul-de-sac at the end of the street is an unassuming little shop belonging to the Stradivarius family. In its unpretentious little window is a tiny hand-written sign saying: “Best Violins on This Street.”
  • Sign on a closed music store: Bach at 2 o’clock. Offenbach earlier.