Understanding American Humor – Part 1

by | Mar 18, 2024

Understanding American Humor – Part 1: Puns –

Understanding what people think is funny—and why—is difficult in any language. In fact, one sure sign that you are developing fluency in your second language is when you realize you are able to appreciate its humor and even laugh along with others. That is an amazing accomplishment!

But it doesn’t happen without some focused attention.

In this article, we will look at one key building block of American humor: puns. This building block could be considered fundamental to the English language in general, but for our purposes we’ll focus on explanations and examples related to American culture. The goal is to help you laugh along with your American friends—and maybe even to tell some jokes yourself!

 

Building Block Number 1: The Humor of Puns

You may not be familiar with the word pun, but it’s a great basic concept for understanding what makes Americans laugh. Here’s how it works:

A pun is a kind of word game: playing with language. Puns are considered funny (most of the time) because they bring surprising or unexpected meanings to a situation. How do they do this?

Puns come in two basic forms:

  • Type 1: A word or phrase that has two different meanings.
  • Type 2: Two different words or phrases that sound almost the same.

When we bring both these (usually unrelated) meanings together in one situation in a surprising, unexpected way, that’s funny!

Type 1 Example: A Word or Phrase with Two Different Meanings

Take a look at this short, punny question and answer:

“Why is an empty purse always the same? Because there is never any change in it!”

What’s the joke? Well, in this pun, the word “change” has two meanings:

  1. coins and small bills
  2. alteration or difference

The joke is funny because it brings together these two ideas: 1) an empty purse has no ‘change’ –no coins or small bills; and 2) an empty purse has ‘no change’ — it’s never different, because it was, is, and will continue to be empty.  Does that make sense?

And does it make you laugh, or at least smile a little? 

Type 2 Example: Two words or Phrases that Sound the Same

For the second type of pun, you will probably need to read the joke out loud in order to understand it. Because the humor depends on things that sound similar, it often won’t make sense when you read it silently.  To see what I mean, take a look at this example:

What do you call a fish with no eyes?  “FSH.”

Understanding American Humor - Puns

If that joke doesn’t make sense, are you sure that you read it out loud?  Try again: “What do you call a fish with no eyes?”  What if ‘eyes’ doesn’t mean what you think it means?

The humor here is based on two things that sound the same but are quite different: “eyes” and “I’s” (that is, the plural of the alphabet letter ‘I’).

When you hear this sentence, you likely think the meaning is “What is the name of a fish with no eyes?” because this makes the most logical sense. However, the joke-maker is actually asking you, “How do you say FISH with no I’s?”  As we now know, the correct (and funny) answer is “FSH”– the word FISH spelled with no I’s.

Did that one make you smile?  Well, read on for some additional examples!

 

More punning jokes

Now that you’ve seen how puns work, try to understand some of the following. Which ones are Type 1 puns and which are Type 2? And which ones do you think are funny?

After thinking about the meaning, click the button below for an explanation.

It's a fact: Taller people sleep longer in bed.
A bicycle can't stand on its own because it is two-tired.
I'm reading a great book about anti-gravity. It's impossible to put down.
I had wanted to look for my missing watch, but I could never find the time.
He drove his expensive car into a tree, and that's when he found out how the Mercedes Benz.
I wondered why the baseball in the sky was getting bigger. Then it hit me.
She was engaged to marry a man who had a wooden leg, but she broke it off.
Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like a banana.
Did you hear about the man whose whole left side was cut off in an accident? But don't worry; he's all right now.
Police were called to a daycare, where a 3-year-old boy was resisting arrest.
I couldn't quite remember how to throw a boomerang, but eventually it came back to me.

If you found some puns you like, try sharing them with a friend! Also if you have questions or additional puns, feel free to post them below.

Thanks for taking a look at this guide to American Humor and the wonderful world of puns (I guess that’s a punderful world, right?)

 

Be sure to take a look at American Humor Part 2: The Knock-Knock Joke

For even more puns, take a look at
Pun Intended – Over 300 of the Punniest Jokes of All Time (available here on Amazon)

 

Note: As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases, at no additional cost to you. Recommended resources are carefully selected and help support the operation of my blog.

5 Comments

  1. Eric

    Here are a few more –

    When’s the best time to call your dentist? Tooth-hurty.

    What happens when doctors get frustrated? They lose their patients

    What did the ocean say to the beach? Nothing, it just waved.

  2. Mark Pedrin

    Good ones! Thanks for sharing!

  3. K_k

    ‘Why was six afraid of seven? Because seven eight nine.’ (‘Seven ate nine)

  4. Shiho Y.

    Thank you for your explanation, it is help me a lot!! Can you please give explanation for this joke, I can;t understand–

    Did you hear about the broken guitar for sale? You can buy it with no strings attached.

    Thank you!

  5. Mark Pedrin

    Sure! This is a pun based on two different meanings of the phrase “no strings attached.”

    The first meaning is that, because the guitar is ‘broken,’ it is missing important parts, including the guitar strings: there are no strings attached to the guitar.

    The second meaning is an idiom: when a business offer has “no strings attached,” it means there are no special conditions or requirements to complete the job. In other words, after you finish purchasing the broken guitar, it will be completely yours, with no further requirements necessary.

    I hope this helps, let me know if you have further questions!

Mark Pedrin

Mark Pedrin

Author

Mark is an English instructor and communication specialist. He loves helping people develop language skill and insight so that they can reach their personal and professional goals.