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An elephant joke is a joke, almost always an absurd riddle or conundrum and often a sequence of such, that involves an elephant. Elephant jokes were a fad in the 1960s, with many people constructing large numbers of them according to a set formula. Sometimes they involve parodies or puns.
- Q: Why did the elephant paint its fingernails red?
- A: So it could hide in the strawberry patch.
- Q: How can you tell that an elephant is in the bathtub with you?
- A: By the smell of peanuts on its breath.
- Q: How can you tell that an elephant has been in your refrigerator/ice box?
- A: By the footprints in the butter/cheesecake/cream cheese.
- Q: What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence?
- A: Time to build a new fence.
In 1960, L.M. Becker Co of Appleton, Wisconsin, released a set of 50 trading cards titled "Elephant Jokes". Elephant jokes first appeared in the United States in 1962. They were first recorded in mid-1962 in Texas, and gradually spread across the US, reaching California in early 1963. By July 1963, elephant jokes were ubiquitous and could be found in newspaper columns, and in Time and Seventeen magazines, with millions of people working to construct more jokes according to the same formula.
Both elephant jokes and Tom Swifties were in vogue in 1963, and were reported in the US national press. While the appeal of Tom Swifties was to literate adults, and gradually faded over subsequent decades, the appeal of elephant jokes was mainly to children, and has lasted. Elephant jokes began circulation primarily among schoolchildren, and have been discovered afresh by subsequent generations of children, remaining, in Isaac Asimov's words "favorites of youngsters and of unsophisticated adults".
Asimov discusses one particular elephant joke that he states is notable for the exceptional sophistication of its humor. The joke was told in the aftermath of the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby, who had walked into Dallas police headquarters carrying a gun, and, in Asimov's words, while still maintaining the absurdity necessary for elephant jokes "carried a quick overtone of chill rationality":
- Q: What did the Dallas chief of police say when the elephant walked into the police station?
- A: Nothing! He didn't notice.
Elephant jokes rely upon absurdity and incongruity for their humor, and a contrast with the normal presumptions of knowledge about elephants. They rely upon absurdist reasoning such as that the only way to detect an elephant in one's bathtub or in one's refrigerator is by the smell of its breath, or by the presence of footprints in the butter; such as that an elephant would be found dressed in a nun's habit; or such as that an elephant could climb a cherry tree, that an elephant would paint its toenails, and that simply painting its toenails in turn would be sufficient in order to camouflage it. This reasoning is not outright nonsense, and elephant jokes do contain a small core of conventional logic. Although that is not the primary method of distinguishing them, elephants and prunes do differ in color. If painting an elephant's toenails were a camouflage mechanism, red would be the appropriate color for a cherry tree. Black, white, and grey would be the colors of an elephant dressed in a nun's habit, and not the colors of an elephant dressed in some other form of costume.
Elephant jokes are often parodies of conventional children's riddles. In conventional riddles, the answer to the riddle is usually a well-known item, such as an egg. In elephant jokes, the answer to the riddle is something that is usually outlandish or absurd, and impossible for those who do not know the punchline to guess, such as Campbell's Cream of Elephant Soup.
David Ritchie describes elephant jokes as comprising double frame shifts. The joke about the elephant in the bathtub comprises first a frame shift from a realistic frame ("in which an elephant could not possibly be found anywhere near my bathtub") to a fantasy frame; and then, in the punchline, a second frame shift in which the fantasy is in its turn logically subverted by the idea that "none of the obvious attributes of elephants (e.g. size and color) is deemed relevant, and the salience of a totally secondary association with eating peanuts is increased". He states that the humor of elephant jokes derives in part from the contradiction between "the logical and expected schema-driven answer" to the riddle, and the actual absurd punchline.
Elephant jokes usually comprise a series of connected riddles, rather than a single standalone riddle. The series usually compounds the absurdity, with succeeding riddles in the joke undermining—or unexpectedly using—the logical structures that are implied by the answers in the preceding ones. For example:
- Q: How do you shoot a blue elephant?
- A: With a blue elephant gun.
- Q: How do you shoot a yellow elephant?
- A: Have you ever seen a yellow elephant?
- Q: How do you shoot a red elephant?
- A: Hold his trunk shut until he turns blue, and then shoot him with the blue elephant gun.
- Q: How do you shoot a purple elephant?
- A: Paint him red, hold his trunk shut until he turns blue, and then shoot him with the blue elephant gun.
- Q: How many elephants will fit into a Mini?
- A: Four: Two in the front, two in the back.
- Q: How many giraffes will fit into a Mini?
- A: None. It's full of elephants.
- Q: How do you get two whales in a Mini?
- A: Along the M4 and across the Severn Bridge.
- Q: How do you know there are two elephants in your refrigerator?
- A: You can hear giggling when the light goes out.
- Q: How do you know there are three elephants in your refrigerator?
- A: You can't close the door.
- Q: How do you know there are four elephants in your refrigerator?
- A: There's an empty Mini parked outside.
Elephant jokes thus not only deliberately undermine the conventions of riddles, they even act to undermine themselves. This even extends to undermining the implied premise, expected by those that are familiar with elephant jokes, that an elephant joke is automatically illogical, or even involves elephants at all. For example:
- Q: What do elephants have that nothing else has?
- A: Baby elephants.
- Q: What is gray, has four legs, and a trunk?
- A: A mouse going on vacation.
- Q: What is brown, has four legs, and a trunk?
- A: A mouse coming back from vacation.
- Q: What has eight legs, two trunks, four eyes, and two tails?
- A: Two elephants.
There can even be an off-color tinge:
- Q: Why is an elephant big, grey and wrinkly?
- A: Because if it were small, white and hard it would be an aspirin.
- Q: Why are golf balls small and white?
- A: Because if they were big and grey they would be elephants.
One time Gong Show act Mike Elephant is remembered for the following joke:
- Q: What's the difference between an elephant and a plum?
- A: Their color.
- Q: What did Tarzan say to Jane when he saw the elephants coming?
- A: Here come the elephants.
- Q: What did Jane say to Tarzan when she saw the elephants coming?
- A: Here come the plums; she was color blind.
Elephant jokes can also use their inherent absurdity to point up the inherent absurdity in some current events. One such joke from the early 1960s refers to an incident in President Kennedy's on-again-off-again support for Cuban exiles' attempts to overthrow Fidel Castro:
- Q: How do you get 2,000 elephants to invade Cuba?
- A: Promise them air support!
Elephant jokes are seen by many commentators as symbolic of the culture of the United States and the United Kingdom in the 1960s. Elliot Oring notes that elephant jokes dismiss conventional questions and answers, repudiate established wisdom, and reject the authority of traditional knowledge. He draws a parallel between this and the counterculture of the 1960s, stating that "disestablishment was the purpose of both," pointing to the sexual revolution and noting that "[p]erhaps it was no accident that many of the elephant jokes emphasized the intrusion of sex into the most innocuous areas."
Abrahams and Dundes, in their paper On elephantasy and elephanticide, consider elephant jokes to be convenient disguises for racism, and symbolised the nervousness of white people about the civil rights movement. Whilst blatantly racialist jokes became less acceptable, elephant jokes were a useful proxy. Abrahams and Dundes take the joke
- Q: What is big and grey and comes in quarts?
- A: An elephant.
and state that the "big and grey and comes in quarts" is in fact a reference "to the supposed mammoth nature of black sexuality." Similarly, the joke about an elephant in the bathtub is argued to be a reference to the increased intrusion of black people into "the most intimate areas of white life."
Oring strongly disagrees with this view, writing: "The Civil Rights movement, of course, was an integral part of the countercultural revolution. But there is no reason to view it as the single force conditioning the joke cycle. Much more than the relations between the races was being turned on its ear. Reducing elephant jokes to a mere front for racial aggression, it seems to me, not only misses the larger sense of what the jokes are about, but the larger sense of what was going on in the society at the time." and continuing: "Elephant joking is more than a description of the episodic career of an animal with a phallic nose. What engenders the humor in such jokes is the violation of categories of expectation, and not images of subjugation, degradation, or feminization of the elephant."
Charles Gruner agrees with Oring that Abrahams' and Dundes' explanation (that "the elephant is an ambivalent father figure" that is, in reality, "the black man (perceived as a sexual threat) that stands hidden behind the image of the elephant") is an "explanation from Freudian Monsterland [that] holds no water."
Gruner however disagrees with Oring about the chronological topicality of the elephant joke and its relation to social upheavals, arguing from personal experience of "one of the best motion picture sight gags in history", where Jimmy Durante in the 1962 movie Billy Rose's Jumbo is attempting to sneak an elephant unseen through a circus. Upon coming around a tent and being faced with a crowd of people and a policeman who demands "Where do you think you are you going with that elephant?" Durante backs against the elephant, arms wide, and asks, innocently, "What elephant?" Gunder proposes that the success of this sight gag spawned in comic writers the idea of "hiding the elephant by all sorts of ridiculous means," and thus, by extension to "other silly, stupid comparisons", the whole genre of elephant jokes.
A turnabout to the Blind men and an elephant cited below is the joke about the 4 blind elephants who felt a human. The first reports that humans are flat, the other three agree.
Another example of this would be the classic "How do you get an elephant down if it's stuck up a tree?". "A": "With an axe."
- Ed Cray and Marilyn Eisenberg Herzog (January 1967). "The Absurd Elephant: A Recent Riddle Fad". Western Folklore (Western States Folklore Society) 26 (1): 27–36. doi:10.2307/1498485. JSTOR 1498485.
- Isaac Asimov (1991). "Shaggy Dog". Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor: A Lifetime Collection of Favorite Jokes, Anecdotes, and... Houghton Mifflin Books. pp. 59–61. ISBN 0-395-57226-6.
- Elliott Oring (1992). "To Skin an Elephant". Jokes and Their Relations. University Press of Kentucky. pp. 16–28. ISBN 0-8131-1774-7.
- Thomas Jackson Rice (1996). "The (Tom) Swiftean Culture of "Scylla and Charybdis"". In R. Brandon Kershner. Joyce and Popular Culture. University Press of Florida. pp. 116–117. ISBN 0-8130-1396-8.
- Mac E. Barrick (1997). Joseph Boskin, ed. The Helen Keller Joke Cycle. Wayne State University Press. p. 205. ISBN 0-8143-2597-1.
- Elliott Oring (2003). Engaging Humor. University of Illinois. pp. 23–24. ISBN 0-252-02786-8.
- David Ritchie (2005). "Frame Shifting in Humor and Irony". Metaphor and Symbol 20 (4): 275–294. doi:10.1207/s15327868ms2004_3.
- Maurice M. Manring (1998). "Cracking Jokes in the Confederate Supermarket". Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima. University of Virginia Press. pp. 4–5. ISBN 0-8139-1811-1.
- Charles R. Gruner (1997). The Game of Humor: A Comprehensive Theory of Why We Laugh. Transaction Publishers. pp. 142–143. ISBN 0-7658-0659-2.
- Bronnie Cunningham, ed. (1974). The Puffin Joke Book. Harmondsworth, England: Puffin Books. pp. 52,122,169. ISBN 0-14-030663-3.
- Barrick M.E. (1964). "The Shaggy Elephant Riddle". Southern Folklore Quarterly 28 (4): 266–291.
- "Elephants by the Trunk". Time. 1963-08-02.
- Jan Harold Brunvand (July 1964). "Have You Heard the Elephant (Joke)?". Western Folklore (Western States Folklore Society) 23 (3): 198–199. doi:10.2307/1498909. JSTOR 1498909.
- Roger D. Abrahams and Alan Dundes (1969). "On elephantasy and elephanticide". The Psychoanalytic Review 56 (2): 225–241. PMID 5817876.
- Tristram Potter Coffin and Hennig Cohen (1973). Folklore from the Working Folk of America. Anchor Press. pp. 164–165. ISBN 0-385-03874-7.
- Elephant hunting theory