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Meta-joke refers to several somewhat different, but related categories: self-referential jokes, jokes about jokes (also known as metahumor), and joke templates.[citation needed]

Self-referential jokes[edit]

This kind of meta-joke is a joke in which a familiar class of jokes is part of the joke. Examples of meta-jokes:

  • An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. The bartender turns to them, takes one look, and says, "What is this - some kind of joke?"
    • A priest, a rabbi and a leprechaun walk into a bar. The leprechaun looks around and says, "Saints preserve us! I'm in the wrong joke!"
    • Three men walk into a bar... Ouch! (And variants:)
      • A dyslexic man walks into a bra.
      • Two men walk into a bar... you'd think one of them would have seen it.
      • Two men walk into a bar... the third one ducks.
      • A baby seal walks into a club.
      • Two men walk into a bar... but the third one is too short and walks right under it.
      • Three blind mice walk into a bar, but they are unaware of their surroundings so to derive humor from it would be exploitative — Bill Bailey[1]
  • A guy walks into a bar and asks for a drink. The bartender says, "I'll give you a drink if you tell me a meta-joke." So the guy says, "A guy walks into a bar and asks for a drink. The bartender says, "I'll give you a drink if you tell me a meta-joke." So the guy says, "A guy walks into a bar and asks for a drink. The bartender says, "here you go." So he gives the guy a drink." So he gives the guy a drink." So he gives the guy a drink.
  • A woman walked into a pub and asked the barman for a double entendre. So he gave her one.
  • An Irishman walks past a bar.
  • "My dog's got no nose"; "How does he smell?"; "Awful".
  • "My dog's got no dictionary"; "How does he spell?"; "Terribly".
  • "What do you get when you cross a joke with a rhetorical question?"
  • "What has four legs and barks?" "A dog." "You heard it."
  • W.S. Gilbert wrote one of the definitive "anti-limericks":
    There was an old man of St. Bees,
    Who was stung in the arm by a wasp;
        When they asked, "Does it hurt?"
        He replied, "No, it doesn't,
    But I thought all the while 'twas a Hornet." [2][3]
    • Tom Stoppard's anti-limerick from Travesties:
      A performative poet of Hibernia
      Rhymed himself into a hernia
          He became quite adept
          At this practice, except
      For the occasional non-sequitur.
    • These non-limericks rely on the listener's familiarity with the limerick's general structure:
      There was a young man from Peru
      Whose limericks all stopped at line two
    • (may be followed with)
      There was an old maid from Verdun
      (The joke being that the listener completes the next line in their head as "Whose limericks all stopped at line one.)"
    • (and even with an explanation that the narrator knows an unrecitable limerick about Emperor Nero)
  • Why did the elephant cross the road? Because the chicken retired.
  • Two drums and a cymbal roll down a hill. (Cue drum sting)
  • What's an onomatopoeia? Just what it sounds like!
  • A self-referential meta-joke:
    • I've never meta-joke I didn't like.
    • Why did the chicken cross the road? To have its motives questioned.
    • Lysdexia
    • There was a man who entered a local paper's pun contest. He sent in ten different puns, in the hope that at least one of the puns would win. Unfortunately, no pun in ten did.
  • Today's Horoscope: "You are easily influenced by what you read and have the ability to make vague sentences somehow applicable to your own existence."
  • Self-referential, self-proving self-contradiction: "There is a contention that claims mal-contentions come from, and lead to malcontents. I'm not satisfied with this, and so I contend it to be a mal-contention, with my contention as proof."

Jokes about jokes ("meta-humor")[edit]

Meta-humor is humor about humor. Here meta is used to describe that the joke explicitly talks about other jokes, a usage similar to the words metadata (data about data), metatheatrics (a play within a play, as in Hamlet), and metafiction.

Marc Galanter in the introduction to his book Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture cites a meta-joke in a speech of Chief Justice William Rehnquist:[4]

I've often started off with a lawyer joke, a complete caricature of a lawyer who's been nasty, greedy, and unethical. But I've stopped that practice. I gradually realized that the lawyers in the audience didn't think the jokes were funny and the non-lawyers didn't know they were jokes.

E. B. White has joked about humor, saying that "Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind."[5]

Another kind of meta-humor is when jokes make fun of poor jokes by replacing a familiar punchline with a serious or nonsensical alternative. Such jokes expose the fundamental criterion for joke definition, "funniness", via its deletion. Comedians such as George Carlin and Mitch Hedberg used metahumor of this sort extensively in their routines. Hedberg would often follow up a joke with an admission that it was poorly told, or insist to the audience that "that joke was funnier than you acted."[6] These follow-ups usually get laughs superior to those of the perceived poor joke and serve to cover an awkward silence. Johnny Carson, especially late in his Tonight Show career, used to get uproarious laughs when reacting to a failed joke with, for example, a pained expression. Immediately following a failed joke about Lincoln's death, for instance, Carson remarked, "A hundred years later, and you still can't do Abraham Lincoln jokes." The latter remark got a better laugh. Similarly, Jon Stewart, when hosting his own television program, used to wring his tie and grimace following an uncomfortable clip or jab. Eddie Izzard often reacts to a failed joke by miming writing on a paper pad and murmuring into the microphone something along the lines of "must make joke funnier" or "don't use again" while glancing at the audience.

In one memorable scene, Groucho Marx said into a telephone, "Do you have Prince Albert in a can?" He then turned to face the camera and said to the audience, "Well, all the jokes can't be good, you have to expect that once in a while."

In the U.S. version of the British mockumentary The Office, many jokes are founded on making fun of poor jokes. Examples include Dwight Schrute butchering the Aristocrats joke, or Michael Scott awkwardly writing in a fellow employee's card an offensive joke, and then attempting to cover it with more unbearable bad jokes.

Limerick jokesters often[citation needed] rely on this limerick that can be told in polite company:

"A limerick packs jokes anatomical,
Into space that is quite economical,
But good ones, it seems,
So seldom are clean,
And the clean ones so seldom are comical."

Joke template[edit]

This kind of meta-joke is a sarcastic jab at the fact that some jokes are endlessly refitted, often by professional jokers, to different circumstances or characters without significant innovation in the humor.[7]

"Three people of different nationalities walk into a bar. Two of them say something smart, and the third one makes a mockery of his fellow countrymen by acting stupid."
"Three blokes walk into a pub. One of them is a little bit stupid, and the whole scene unfolds with a tedious inevitability."
Bill Bailey[1]
"How many members of a certain demographic group does it take to perform a specified task?"
"A finite number: one to perform the task and the remainder to act in a manner stereotypical of the group in question."
There once was an X from place B,
Who satisfied predicate P,
Then X did thing A,
In a specified way,
Resulting in circumstance C.

The philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser summarised Jewish logic as "If P, so why not Q?"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Bill Bailey, "Bill Bailey Live - Part Troll", DVD Universal Pictures UK (2004) ASIN B0002SDY1M
  2. ^ Wells 1903, pp. xix-xxxiii.
  3. ^ Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia Of Literature - Google Boeken
  4. ^ Marc Galanter, "Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture", University of Wisconsin Press (September 1, 2005) ISBN 0-299-21350-1, p. 3.
  5. ^ "Some Remarks on Humor", preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor (1941)
  6. ^ Mitch Hedberg, "Mitch Hedberg - Mitch All Together", CD Comedy Central (2003) ASIN B000X71NKQ
  7. ^ "Stars turn to jokers for hire"[dead link]