There’s a joke I love, but finding the right audience for it is almost impossible. When I first heard it, I laughed heartily while glaring at the teller. Sure, it was funny to me, but the teller defied social convention in saying it. Ever since hearing this joke, I’ve only managed a successful retelling once or twice, but each time was well worth the effort. The joke is this:
Three pregnant women are in a doctor’s waiting room, knitting. The first mother checks her watch and takes a pill from her purse. Popping it in her mouth, she smiles, and tells the other mothers “Vitamin A. Good for mom, good for baby!” and continues knitting. Then the second mother takes a pill out and swallows it, ...view middle of the document...
It was created to alleviate the pains of morning sickness, among other nauseous symptoms common during pregnancy. Eventually, it was discovered that when a woman had taken thalidomide during pregnancy, the likelihood of her giving birth to a deformed child increased drastically. The most common deformity was lacking body parts, most commonly the limbs. With this knowledge, the listener can make sense of the punchline: the woman anticipates that after taking thalidomide on purpose, the child will be born without arms and will therefore not need sleeves on his clothing.
This begs the question: why would we laugh at something as terrible as birth defects? Surely they are characterized as “not a joking matter,” along with grave illness, extreme poverty, and natural disasters. And it’s true: tragedies are by definition not funny, so it’s hard to imagine why a joke involving one would be. The difference here lies in the context, and the target of the joke.
Jokes with sad, scary, or offensive subjects have to very carefully touch on the topic, but if done tastefully, can be incredibly rewarding. Making the joke’s subject “taboo” raises the stakes of the joke, making it risky to say in public, but it also provides a release for the listener from the societal pressure to be politically correct at all times.
In this case, the funniness of the joke lies in the context in which the tragedy is mentioned. If the joke were simply “a woman purposefully took a drug to induce deformity in her fetus,” no sympathetic person could ever laugh at it, even though the course of action described is the same as in the joke.However, rather than laughing at the child’s deformity, this joke prompts the listener to laugh at the absurdity of the mother’s callousness and stupidity.
This joke’s punchline creates many assumptions, and it is from these assumptions that we derive humor. They’re ridiculous concepts. We are made to believe that a woman was so intent on knitting an article of clothing for her child even though she didn’t know how to knit sleeves, that she willfully prevented her child from having arms, and thereby negating the need for sleeves. Somehow, to this woman, it is more important to have this hand-knit sweater fit her child than for the child to be healthy and fully functioning.
The joke doesn’t follow a specific formula or tradition, but instead presents a scenario, and then with the final line, disrupts that scenario. Most of the humor in this joke comes from the pure absurdity and shock value, but this reaction is heightened by a reversal of expectation. We hear the first two mothers explain that they are taking vitamins, to benefit their health and their babies’ wellbeing. The expectation then, is that the last mother would also want to nourish and nurture her unborn child. The vitamins listen even go in a predictable order — first Vitamin A, then Vitamin B. The listener, consciously or not, anticipates “Vitamin C” as the third woman’s response. When...