The importance of background knowledge in humor

Cartoonists have a very difficult task because they do not have space to fill in all the necessary information and have to use images to convey a lot of background information so that people get the joke. But in doing so, they are heavily dependent on the reader getting the allusions.

As an example of how much background knowledge is needed for humor, take this cartoon.

(Speed Bump)

To get the joke, you have to recognize the person as William Shakespeare. You have to know that he was a playwright and thus his works were performed by actors, that many of his plays were done at the Globe theater, and be familiar with the aphorism written on his shirt.

This makes humor hard to cross cultural boundaries.


  1. Matt G says

    One of my favorite jokes requires several pieces of information, one of which is quite adult in nature, and so eludes children: Two sperm are swimming along. The first sperm says “I’m exhausted -- have we reached the Fallopian tube yet?” The second sperm replies “No, I think we’re still in the esophagus.”

  2. jenorafeuer says

    I’ve seen lots of humour that was rather domain-specific, like in-jokes for HAM radio operators.

    I’ve also seen jokes that required at least basic knowledge of multiple languages to get. I’m in Canada, I knowmultiple jokes that only work if you understand both English and French. Heck, there’s a sporting goods store here called ‘Si Vous Play’, a deliberate play on words with ‘S’il Vous Plait’, French for ‘If you Please’. (Outside of Canada, they just operate as ‘SVP Sports’ because nobody was going to get the reference.)

    Not only does humour not always cross cultural boundaries well, humour can often be deliberately constructed within a cultural boundary as a form of shibboleth: tell an obscure joke, see who reacts, and then you’ve found your people.

  3. jenorafeuer says

    Yes, I am, though not as much as some of my friends are.

    (A couple of my friends, at a post-convention party one year, spontaneously started doing an ad-hoc duet of ‘Le Pudding à l’Arsenic’, a.k.a. ‘The Arsenic Cake’, from the Astérix et Cléopâtre animated movie. There was definitely alcohol involved. I have weird friends, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything.)

  4. sonofrojblake says

    I think I got most of the jokes in Asterix. The one I didn’t understand for years was the Gaul leader, Vercingetorix. Only by chance did I discover that name isn’t a joke -- it’s the name of an actual leader of the Gauls.

    Of course the best Asterix joke is that in my experience nine out of ten people still pronounce the word for this thing * as Asterix.

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    jenorafeuer @2: There used to be (still is?) a French Canadian TV program called ‘Samedi Chaud’.

  6. DonDueed says

    Victor Borge liked to do multi-language jokes at times. One I remember had the punch line “Un, deux, trois cats sank”.

  7. brucegee1962 says

    About 10% of all the jokes in “xkcd” and “Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal” have references to programming languages or other stuff that I don’t get at all. That’s ok, though — I think it’s cool that these niche groups can get served up humor tailor-made for them.

  8. says

    Ahhh, but the beauty of Asterix is that it works on so many layers. I grew up with Asterix in the house and started reading it as soon as I could read. And it was funny. I re read it some time later, and got new jokes. Repeat over the span of a decade or more until I got the adult jokes.
    Best example of Constructivism that I know.

  9. mnb0 says

    But of course the series went downhill after Goscinny died.
    Still the series confirms what MS writes: “background information”. Example:éry_Giscard_d%27Estaing

    A quite vicious caricature. They of course got away of it because they mocked so many nationalities (even the USA! in the Great Crossing). We Dutch will keep on envying the Belgians until the end of times because of the 24th album, while the duo never wrote something like Asterix in Bataviland.
    A & O is possibly the only comics series that requires secondary literature to get the maximum out of it. Even a few minutes ago I learned about a new joke.

  10. jenorafeuer says

    Oh lord, Victor Borge. Where you had to know languages and classical music both to get some of his jokes. Like when he introduced a piece he was about to play on the piano as having been written by Giuseppe Verdi. *settles on seat, gets hands ready to play again, then pauses and turns back to audience* “That’s ‘Joe Green’ to you and me.”

    Which of course it is: if you know any Italian. Giuseppe is the Italian version of Joseph, so Joe, and Verdi is ‘green’ when used as an adjective. (Though I think maybe that only applies when it’s an adjective for a plural noun? I probably know Latin better than Italian, and I know French better than both.) But it was also just the complete casual delivery of the line, and the fact that he kept interrupting getting ready to play the song (with an impatient singer behind him) to spring thoughts on the audience like this until they were wondering if he’d be speaking longer than he was playing… the man was brilliant both as a pianist and as a comedian. He certainly had the timing down for both.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *