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

Joke template[edit]

This form of meta-joke is a sarcastic jab at the endless refitting of joke forms (often by professional comedians) to different circumstances or characters without a significant innovation in the humor.[1] For example:

  • "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[2]
  • "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.

Class-referential jokes[edit]

This form of meta-joke contains a familiar class of jokes as part of the joke. Examples:

  • Bar Jokes:
    • 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.
    • An Irishman walks past a bar.
    • The bar was walked into by a passive sentence... "active members only" was heard said.
  • What and Why Jokes:
    • "What has four legs and barks?" "A dog." "You heard it."
    • Why did the elephant cross the road? Because the chicken retired.
    • What's an onomatopoeia? Just what it sounds like!
    • Why did the chicken cross the road? To have its motives questioned.
  • Limericks:
    • 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."[3][4]
    • 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.
  • "There are 10 kinds of computer scientists: those who know nothing, those who know binary, those who know ternary, those who know quaternary, those who know quinary, ... "

Self-referential jokes[edit]

Truly self-referential jokes are quite rare, as they must refer to themselves rather than to larger classes of previous jokes. Examples:

  • "This joke is not funny when delivered in a deadpan accent."
  • "What do you get when you cross a joke with a rhetorical question?"
  • An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman walk into a bar. The barman 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 blind mice walk into a bar, but they are unaware of their surroundings so to derive humour from it would be exploitative. — Bill Bailey[2]
  • "When I said I was going to become a comedian, they all laughed. Well, they're not laughing now, are they?" – Bob Monkhouse

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

Meta-humour is humour about humour. 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:[5]

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 humour, saying that "[h]umour 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."[6]

Another kind of meta-humour makes 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 metahumour 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."[7] Johnny Carson in his Tonight Show career used to get laughs when reacting to a failed joke with, for example, a pained expression. Immediately following a failed joke about Lincoln's death Carson remarked, "A hundred years later, and you still can't do Abraham Lincoln jokes." The latter remark got a better laugh than the initial joke. Similarly, Jon Stewart, when hosting his 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 "must make joke funnier" or "don't use again."

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 unbearably bad jokes.

The process of being a humorist is also the subject of meta-jokes; for example, on an episode of QI, Jimmy Carr made the comment "People laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well, they're not laughing now!"— a joke previously associated with Bob Monkhouse.[8]

A limerick (poetry) referring to the anti-humor of limericks:

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.

See also[edit]

  • Anti-humor – Style of comedy that is deliberately awkward or experimental
  • Fourth wall – Concept in performing arts separating performers from the audience
  • Meta – Prefix meaning more comprehensive or transcending
  • Meta-reference – Special type of self-reference
  • Metaparody – Form of humor consisting of parodying the parody
  • Self-reference – A sentence, idea or formula that refers to itself
  • Snowclone – Neologism for a type of cliché and phrasal template


  1. ^ "Stars turn to jokers for hire"[dead link]
  2. ^ a b Bill Bailey, "Bill Bailey Live - Part Troll", DVD Universal Pictures UK (2004) ASIN B0002SDY1M
  3. ^ Wells 1903, pp. xix-xxxiii.
  4. ^ Merriam-Webster's Encyclopedia Of Literature - Google Boeken
  5. ^ Marc Galanter, "Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture", University of Wisconsin Press (September 1, 2005) ISBN 0-299-21350-1, p. 3.
  6. ^ "Some Remarks on Humor", preface to A Subtreasury of American Humor (1941)
  7. ^ Mitch Hedberg, "Mitch Hedberg - Mitch All Together", CD Comedy Central (2003) ASIN B000X71NKQ
  8. ^ Deacon, Michael (3 June 2015). "Modern comedy's unlikely hero: Bob Monkhouse". Retrieved 18 February 2018.