Here’s an old joke my Dad used to tell me:
On his first night in prison, a man is lying in his cell, trying to sleep. He hears someone shout out “14!” The place erupts into laughter. It dies down and someone else shouts “22!” Again, gales of laughter.
The man is confused. He asks his cellmate: why do you all find numbers so funny? His cellmate replies that everyone’s been in here so long, they know all the jokes. To save time, they numbered them. Any time someone wants to tell a joke, they just say the number and everyone knows what the punchline is!
The man thinks this is a very clever idea and decides to try it out himself. He waits till the laughter from the latest joke calms down and shouts out “8!”
No-one laughs. The place is deathly silent.
The man turns to his cellmate. “Why didn’t they laugh?”
“Well kid,” he says, “some guys can tell ’em and some guys can’t.”
This was supposed to lead into a bit about cultural references, memetics and that episode of Star Trek where they go to a planet of nerds who can only communicate by quoting their favourite stories. I got sidetracked when I decided to see who else had written out this joke. Was it different from mine? I was probably last told this joke 10 years ago. I must’ve messed up some of the details.
Google suggested “prison number joke” and I pulled up the first result. Here’s how they worded it:
A man is sent to prison for the first time. At night, the lights in the cell block are turned off, and his cellmate goes over to the bars and yells, “Number twelve!” The whole cell block breaks out laughing. A few minutes later, somebody else in the cell block yells, “Number four!” Again, the whole cell bloock breaks out laughing.
The new guy asks his cellmate what’s going on. “Well,” says the older prisoner, “we’ve all been in this here prison for so long, we all know the same jokes. So we just yell out the number instead of saying the whole joke.”
So the new guy walks up to the bars and yells, “Number six!” There was dead silence in the cell block. He asks the older prisoner, “What’s wrong? Why didn’t I get any laughs?”
“Well,” said the older man, “sometimes it’s not the joke, but how you tell it.”
Their punchline is better, but isn’t that curious? Considering the circumstances, it’s surprisingly similar. Speech has power, even when translated to another medium, and especially when used to communicate cultural packets. I may not have finished those thoughts about memetics and Star Trek, but I think this joke gets the point across about as well as I could.