The Signal Man Joke

This is an old joke told by Billy Conolly.

I see it as having relevance to the field of information security, really; I could easily turn this into “the Security Operations Analyst” joke.

The “portability” of a joke is interesting to me; it says something about whether the joke is reaching for some kind of universal (semi-universal) aspect of human experience, or whether it’s a joke about a specific detail of some cultural artifact or other.* Some jokes depend mostly on timing, others on releasing a pent-up reaction, or recognition of a pun, or … whatever. I’m not sure if it’s possible or if it makes sense to try to enumerate the forms of punch-line. Given humanity’s love for classification systems I can easily see a “types of humor” joke somewhere in here.

(*All artifacts are cultural)


  1. JM says

    There is a connection between trying to classify humor and trying to classify program errors. Both depend to a large extent on charting all the ways something can fail, normal logic and program execution respectively. In both cases it’s trying to map out a large conceptual space that can’t easily be defined or constrained.
    There are obvious cases that can be identified In the case of humor things such as puns, language ambiguity jokes and knock knock jokes. In programming you get divide by zero, memory allocation errors and type conversion errors. Trying to find every obscure corner case is futile because not only is the space huge but it slowly changes over time and context. If you are running your program on a virtual machine there are oddities that can arise by having the amount of memory change during execution that are essentially impossible with a physical server. Changes to the acceptable cultural context of spoken jokes is slow but does happen.

  2. jrkrideau says

    Was this planned? At the end of the video a suggestion for a video of the USS Kitty Hawk collision with a Soviet submarine appeared.

    Also, humour may be culturally dependent. I remember a friend from Bahrain saying that he realised that his joke in Gulf Arabic just did not work in Canadian English

  3. says

    I happen to believe humor is a purely cultural artifact but I’m damned if I want to defend that belief, so I just waffle about how humor may be cultural.

  4. flex says

    Without trying to over-analyze this joke, I feel that the reason it’s so funny is because of the urgency of it all.

    “I’ll dash…” is a recurring note, throughout the joke, showing the signalman knows the magnitude of the problem. But at the end of it all, even knowing the magnitude of the problem, the signalman recognizes that there is nothing left that he can do to prevent a crash. So he “dashes” to get someone who, in the weird way humans have, would enjoy the spectacle of a total disaster.

    It wouldn’t be funny if he strolled, ambled, or sashayed to get his uncle.

  5. dashdsrdash says

    It’s a good one, but I was expecting an ending like this:

    Signaller: “I’ll drop a giant mattress on the tracks between the trains, maybe that will save some people.”

    Interviewer: “Where are you going to get a giant mattress?”

    Signaller: “Same place you got the lightning.”

  6. says

    @2: I got recommendations for “Barn” by Neil Young and Crazy Horse, and Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.

    @5: Well, sure, if the examiner can assume lightning, why can’t the student assume a mattress, or a siding, or anything else?

  7. sonofrojblake says

    Frankie Boyle once reflected on the essential absurdity of his job as a writer of comedy : sitting in a room trying to think of surprising ways for sentences to end. Summed it up well, I thought.

  8. says

    It absolutely has universal appeal. Anyone (except for the most smug, self-righteous “I wouldn’t do THAT!” type) would admit to at least some fascination or curiosity with watching a crash. . .when there’s nothing more you can do to help, of course. There’s a “yup, that’s me” quality that could work in any country, culture or language.

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