The Building of a Joke

It might be thought  that the motive for a joke is simply to get pleasure, but it is not to be excluded that other elements may influence the construction of  a witticism.

A joke certainly generates pleasure, but not everyone has the ability to give life to that odd process called by Freud ‘joke –work’. Only those with a mental talent called wit, independent from intelligence, imagination and memory, may deservedly win the title of witty people. However, there are also personal factors or ‘subjective determinants’, as defined in the book ‘The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious’ [1], that might influence the creation of a joke. These factors originate from the narrator’s personal context. Freud takes into account the case of Jewish jokes often made fooling themselves but containing  an ironic criticism expressed indirectly.

If we consider for instance the pun made in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction :

Mia :  Vincent? Do you wanna hear my Fox Force Five joke?

Vincent :  Sure! Except I think I’m still a little too petrified to laugh.

Mia :  No, you won’t laugh ‘cause it’s not funny. But if you still wanna hear it, I’ll tell it.

Vincent :  I can’t wait!

Mia :  Okay! Three tomatoes are walking down the street. Papa Tomato, Mama

            Tomato and Baby Tomato. Baby Tomato starts lagging behind, and Papa 

           Tomato gets really angry. Goes back and squishes him and says, ‘ Ketchup’.

Vincent : [ Weak Chuckle ]

Mia : ‘ Ketchup’!

It might be noticed that a paronomasia has been created using the semiotic similarity of the noun which stands for the tomato sauce, ketchup, and the phrasal verb catch up. Although the joke is not particularly funny, it is instead very effective in its talking in a roundabout way.  If we turn our attention to the context in which the joke is said and by whom it is said, we might think that the wife of the famous gangster Marsellus Wallace is playfully warning Vincent Vega of the danger that both would face if Mr. Wallace knew of the events occurred that night.

The motive for a joke might come from the selfish need to prove how smart a person is – especially if the game is successful – or from the generous intent to generate pleasure, but also from the urgent need to say something that means instead something else ‘ the said together with unsaid ‘, as Linda Hutcheon in her ‘Irony’s Edge’ [2] has defined the term irony. In all cases the joke-work provides a communication and therefore it needs an audience to take place, considering the fact that nobody tells jokes to himself, unless mentally disturbed. From that, the difference between a joke and the comic. When I see something funny I may find myself laughing alone, but I might also have the pleasure of sharing the comic scene, telling the story to someone else. In the case of a joke I can’t laugh  telling the joke to myself , but I may instead feel the need to pass the joke to someone else, so that the listener may experience the same pleasure previously perceived by me.

It is possible that such a need is connected to the visible laugh-effect that a successful joke must create; to see someone laughing for something that I said intentionally to amuse guarantees of the success of the joke, which could never be visible if it did not exist on the face of a listener. We cannot see ourselves laughing , unless in front of a mirror, but in this case we will be looking again at someone mentally disturbed who tells jokes to his reflection in the mirror. Why, then, do we not laugh at our own jokes? And what is the relationship between a joke-teller and a joke-listener?

If we think of a comic situation, the characters are usually divided in two parts. On the one hand the protagonist of the comic scene, which Freud called ‘person -as –object’, on the other hand the ‘I’ who watches, thus the ‘person -as- observer’. These two people are enough to create a comic scene. A third person, that is someone to whom telling the story at a later time, can be part of the situation but his presence is not essential.


In the case of a joke, we have already seen that it is necessary to have an audience for it to happen, therefore we may count at least three people; unlike the comic, the second person is not anymore the ‘person-as-object’ but a third person that corresponds to a ‘someone-else’.  It is this third person who decides if the joke is successful or not, and it is also him who judges. Going back to the Pulp Fiction ‘tomato joke’, the narrator Mia tells the story of something that is outside the scene, the story of the family tomatoes, to a third person Vincent Vega, who will eventually judge the joke.

We can easily understand that what has been described until now is a   ‘communicative process’ that does not exists but happens, and it happens in discourse, in the dynamic space of interaction between text, context and interpreter . This process also features what, Linda Hutcheon in her Irony’s Edge  defines as irony . Irony may be described by three adjectives: relational, inclusive and differential. Relational, as it creates a bond not only between two meanings ( said, unsaid ), but also between people ( ironist , interpreter , target); inclusive as it is based on a both/and relation instead of a either/or one; and differential as unlike a metaphor or an allegory, whose ‘talk about other’ is obtained by still using similar real and unreal images, irony preserves instead the differences.

To explain the concept of ironic inclusivity Linda Hutcheon analyzes an image used by Wittgenstein in his ‘ Philosophical Investigations ‘ and then by E.H. Gombrich in ‘ Art and Illusion ‘ . The image depicts a duck and a rabbit at the same time depending on whether our view sees the beak of a bird or a pair of long ears on the left side of the picture.  Human eye perceives the shape of the two animals only one by one, a duck or a rabbit,  whereas our mind is able to read them both at the same time. What is therefore to be created here, is not an isolation of the two images, but on the contrary a flow of thought, a dynamic movement between the two components of the picture that  shapes a third element , the ironic one, made of both.


A duck is not the opposite of a rabbit, but simply ‘other’. The image then creates a communicative relationship between three elements: an observer, a duck and a rabbit.

If we shift our thinking to a wider discourse, we may connect this tripartite division to what Hannah Arendt in ‘The Human Condition’ [3]  has identified as one of the main causes, in modern times, of the crisis of architecture – public art par excellence – and the subsequent development of other arts such as poetry and music. Modern society , according to Hannah Arendt, has been characterized by the nonexistence of a difference between public and private which in earlier times was instead clearly defined. These two realms are no longer separated by an evident edge, but on the contrary they constitute a single image, as in the case of the duck and the rabbit . The third element , which therefore is neither duck nor rabbit, neither public nor private but rather duck and rabbit, public and private , is what we might call  ‘modern society ‘ .

Modern society doesn’t anymore consider the public realm as separate from the private and it is no longer a place of action, but rather of behaviour. The illusory freedom that human beings think to have achieved in modern times, is nothing more than a set of rules written by an invisible hand that is able to unify the mass by imposing principles of conduct that only lead to a loss of personality, so to what is commonly called conformism. An independent action of a human being who thinks goes indeed against every idea of ​​modernity. Modern architecture as expression of a new society, can no longer be only limited to a public sphere, but it necessarily needs to invade the private thus crossing the boundary that separates the duck from the rabbit.  This leads to a loss of man’s action who, instead of being an active part of the design process , is forced to comply with imposed standards of behavior . It is as if I say a joke only to myself, forgetting that any joke has essentially an unselfish character, and that it cannot exist without an audience.

‘There is a plague of sameness that is killing the human joy’ says Iwan Baan , a Dutch architectural photographer , in a talk titled ‘ Ingenious homes in unexpected places ‘ .

Baan tells the story of a visit to the David Tower in the centre of Caracas , a 45-story unfinished office tower that was in the midst of construction until the developer died in 1993. The economic crisis that affected Venezuela in the following years, left the building in a permanent state of incompleteness. About eight years ago, people started moving into the abandoned construction site , and today it is considered the world ‘s largest vertical slum. With no lifts or escalators, and only a small entrance that serves the whole building, the tower is a forty-five-story walk up . You’ll find seniors or those less physically-able on the lower floors, and the young and healthy near the top . Public spaces like the stairwell are painted with care in order to make the tower feel more like an apartment building .With the average temperatures reaching 28 degrees in Caracas, the inhabitants needed to find ways to induce airflow. Holes  have been made ​​in the wall to serve as a circulation system, and also to help inhabitants better navigate the building.

Space is defined only by external walls and concrete pillars, the rest has been divided by each inhabitant of the tower using found and cheap materials. Everyone has designed his own space with  maximum freedom of expression, and some of the applied solutions may easily compete with the most creative of  architects. Every house has been thought to meet specific needs, all different from one another . David tower has become a small city designed by people who live it . It functions on an entire system of micro-economies , and on each floor, it is possible to find a collection of shops and services: a church , a grocery store and also a gym on the 30th floor, where all the weights are made ​​from unused elevator equipment. The building  provides a skeleton framework for each inhabitant to create something for himself or herself by whatever means they can afford.

Robert Evans in ‘Towards Architecture’ said: ‘ The world is not a giant artwork […] , it is, to use a cliché, a stage … a stage for action , but not our action but their action’.

Designing should be a communicative process, as mentioned before, in which three elements are necessary for the very existence of the joke. Mia would never tell the joke of the family tomatoes if  Vincent Vega  were not an active part of the scene. An architect would never design a building if  no people lived it .Probably we are not able to explain why we laugh at a joke, maybe the motive is to be sought in the economy of a mental effort, as Freud says, a sort of mental saving that enables us to experience pleasure without thinking too much about the explanation of the joke; we all know that a joke should never be explained, otherwise it would lose its wit. Perhaps the simple role of architecture is trying to catch a smile.


[1]: Freud, Sugmund : The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious, Imago Publishing,1940;

[2]: Hutcheon, Linda : Irony’s Edge, Routledge, London,1994.

[3]: Arendt Hannah : The Human Condition, University of Chicago Press,1958;


2 thoughts on “The Building of a Joke

  1. Cara Rossella,

    ho letto anche questo tuo ultimo pezzo, che mi è piaciuto sia per il tema sia per le argomentazioni usate per esprimerlo. Mi ha fatto sorridere.


    Sono contento che tu abbia scritto uno dei primi pezzi per the Architecture Player che, come avrai visto, si muove ancora con lentezza. Spero di poter presto dare al tuo articolo la visibilità e la diffusione che merita. E magari di poter ospitar nuovi tuoi interventi.

    A presto



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s