L: “What did the big cup say to the little cup?”
R: (sarcastically) “I’m bigger than you?”
L: “No, Nothing. Cups can’t talk”.
R: (completely ignoring L) “I can hold more water than you?”
As is evident, this is a poignant example of failed humor. And although humor in general has come in for great deal of consideration in academia – even having its own peer-reviewed journal since 1988, Humor, the International Journal of Humor Research), nevertheless a branch called ‘Failed humor’ has received far less attention. Unfittingly perhaps, considering its prevalence. Either way, Nancy Bell, who is an applied linguist and associate professor at the College of Liberal Arts, Department of English, Washington State University, US, has studied it in some considerable depth.
The (failed) joke example above comes from the professor’s chapter entitled ‘Impolite responses to failed humor’ (published in D. Chiaro and N. Norrick (eds.) Humor in Interaction (pp. 143-163). In the course of her research, the professor collected a corpus of 207 responses to failed humor – no less than 44% of which were coded as ‘impolite’. The chapter raises, and suggests answers to, the question : “Given that failing at humor is already humiliating, why might these interlocutors have opted to punish the tellers with aggravated face attacks?” Substantial extracts of the chapter can be found here:
The professor has also authored : Responses to failed humor, Journal of Pragmatics, Volume 41, Issue 9, pp. 1825–1836.
and : Failed humor: Issues in non-native speakers’ appreciation and understanding of humor. Intercultural Pragmatics, 7(3): pp. 423-447. (with Salvatore Attardo).
Three example jokes, for readers’ evaluation :
Mark as : Failed / Successful.
(It might help to try to ignore the applause, which may or may not be 100% meaningful in these instances).