The null punchline

Back in my former life, I once worked with an engineer (now retired) who had a cross-stitch displayed in his office. It was something like:

engineer
flawless – precise

I thought it was hilarious. I loved the plain hubris of it, the deliberate irony, as if he were saying, “Sure, I think I’m perfect, so what? I’m an engineer. Prove me wrong.” (And what better medium for the message than cross-stitch?)

Considering that I’m now an editor, it took me an embarrassingly long time to notice that the cross-stitch actually said:

engineeer
flawless – precise

Note the extra “e” in “engineer.” He’s claiming perfection whilst sporting a typo. That is, in fact, the entire joke, the whole reason he had the thing in his office. I had thought it was hilarious — while completely missing the punchline.

Or how about this: While watching the sublime anime Azumanga Daioh with my friend Ben, I came across this bizarre scene, where a character has a New Year’s dream involving a hawk, an eggplant, and Mount Fuji.

Ben and I both laughed our asses off. The combination of those three things was so utterly random, and the girl’s exultant reaction was so over-the-top, that it was just perfect. Non sequitur at its finest.

But I later learned, after a bit of research, that the dream wasn’t random at all. There’s a Japanese tradition that a New Year’s dream featuring those three images foretells the best possible luck. (Where the tradition came from, I have no idea.) So that was the whole point of the scene, and it was lost on us Americans.

In both cases, I found the “null punchline” funnier than the intended joke. I know this has happened to me other times, too.

Why, though? Why is the un-humor funnier than the humor?

I guess it’s more strange, more subtle. More like seeing the fundamental weirdness of the universe laid bare, as opposed to something constructed by a person.

In other words, I have no idea.

Have you ever laughed at a null punchline?

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