The Black Box Joke
There are some jokes that will always be with us; such as the simplest “knock-knock” joke, or the banal banana peel slip. For many of us, Mad Libs, “knock-knock” jokes, and bad puns are the earliest forms of humor we’re exposed to as children. They are safe, clean, and use a simple form of logic. Even when we tell bawdy barroom jokes over drinks, there’s a certain “surprising, yet inevitable” formula at play. On some unconscious level we know what direction the joke will take. But on a conscious level we want to be surprised. We don’t dare give away the punch line, unless the old cliché, “stop me if you’ve heard this one,” is invoked. While this type of humor isn’t the most sophisticated, it doesn’t have to be. It just has to work. A little laugh from a basic set up, followed by a punch line. They are simple, effective, and based on some sort of reason.
The antithesis of this would be the Black Box Joke. This is a phrase that I’ve coined to describe a joke, or humorous situation, that relies on the ignorance of the audience for a laugh. It is one of the cheapest shots in the book. It is also to be avoided like a rabid monkey in heat. Smart audiences respond to smart humor. Stupid humor can also work, but not for very long. Eventually, the audience knows it has been cheated. A Black Box Joke might generate a laugh for a few moments. But once the audience has sobered up from the laugh, they’ll have a chance to think about what the performer has actually said.
The eponymous phrase takes it name from this joke…
“You know, when a plane crashes, all that is left is the black box. Why don’t they just make the whole plane out of the black box?”
The infamous “black box” flight data recorder is actually not black. It is painted orange, so it is easier to find. And as Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) pointed out in an essay*, “The black box is made of titanium.” The aircraft is made of light-weight aluminum, so it can fly. He goes on to point out that the reason for this is that titanium is too heavy to build an airplane from. He is right on both counts. Not to mention titanium would be vastly more expensive to use as a building material. This is one of the many reasons why it is rarely used as a material for anything (except the defunct space shuttle, and Robocop).
Not to mention there are aluminum recycling programs across the world. Similar programs for titanium are few and far between. This makes building something practical out of such a material not very practical.
The end result is that on the surface you have a joke that is silly, but plausible. Granted, no one really challenges such a joke; most people just shrug it off. We hear it once, and then repeat it at the water cooler. We hardly give it a thought afterwards.
The joke itself was popular in the 1980’s when incidents of airplane disasters were running rampant (in the eyes of the news media). Humor, being the great arbiter of all things, rebounded with a response. Perhaps the rebound this time didn’t make it to the basket, but it was a semi-decent try.
A joke like this, while ignorant, does serve a social function. It helps us to feel better about the unknown. We can’t control natural, or man-made, disasters. If we can at least joke about it, then perhaps we’ll feel better about loss of control. The joke still relies on ignorance, but it is a blissful ignorance to an audience. It doesn’t take into account the number of routine flights that go smoothly each day. Nor, does it take into account how incredibly rare airplane crashes/accidents really are.
Speaking from my own experiences with air travel; I was once on a flight where someone had a heart attack before take off. The person was a large, overweight man, who’d keeled over in the aisle. One of the flight attendants was able to resuscitate him. An EMT crew came aboard, and then took him to a hospital. The last I’d heard of him, he was ok. What was the likelihood of someone having a heart attack on a plane before it took off? Would this person of fared worse if they’d had a heart attack while we were in the air? And would it have been more practical to just have an O.R. in the fuselage?
The answers to the above are: Not very likely, probably, and don’t expect me to pay for it.
The point I’m trying to make is this: a joke that denies the intelligence of the audience is insulting. But a joke that enlightens the audience with observation, truth, and out-of-the-box-thinking lauds the intelligence of the audience.
Will you open the black box? Or, will you open the orange box?
Copyright Riley Joyce 2011
*The essay in question can be found in Adams’ posthumous book, The Salmon of Doubt. It was that essay that inspired this piece. The quotation used in this piece is paraphrased from his work.