In February 2018, the comedian Emo Philips tweeted a two word joke in response to a headline in the Guardian. Emo’s joke makes the headline function as a kind of set-up to his punchline. Because of the format of the tweet, Emo’s two word punchline actually precedes the headline it’s commenting on — also it’s in a bigger font, and grabs the attention more forcefully than the headline tucked away beneath it. So, unusually for a joke, we actually encounter the punchline first, which we then have to decipher once we’ve read the set-up.
Here is the tweet, as it was posted:
The first time I read this I missed the joke entirely. I knew a joke was there, somewhere, in the relationship between Emo’s cry of “Hadrian! HADRIAN!” and the headline “Rare Roman boxing gloves found near Hadrian’s Wall” but how did the two relate? What was I missing? I made my own best guess at what the joke meant, thought about it some more, and shortly after that I actually got the joke.
There are three closely related processes at work here: my missing the joke, my getting the joke, and Emo making the joke. Let’s start with how I went wrong.
Missing the joke
There’s nothing instantly “gettable” about Emo’s two word remark. The words aren’t a self-contained joke. I knew that the key to their meaning (and the completion of the joke) must lie in the headline beneath. So, I rummaged around inside the headline for a clue — “Rare Roman boxing gloves found near Hadrian’s Wall” — and made my best guess. If you already know what the joke is, you’ll have to bear with me as I ponder my failure to get it.
I inferred (wrongly) from the headline that Emo was in some sense shouting at the Emperor Hadrian of Hadrian’s Wall fame. Here’s what I assumed the joke to be: a pair of boxing gloves had been lost by Hadrian next to his famous wall, and with the cry of “Hadrian! HADRIAN!” Emo is comically alerting the long dead Emperor to the fact that his long lost boxing gloves had been found. The equivalent of Emo shouting at the tomb of Hadrian: “Oi, Hadrian, you know those gloves you lost…”
Which is not at all funny, but at least it made some sort of sense. In effect, in trying to understand the joke Emo had written, I’d ended up constructing my own joke (which I attributed to an off-form Emo) within the same text. A joke which was exactly the same as Emo’s on the page, but was mechanically and semantically completely different. Same wording, same set-up, same punchline, two different jokes. Two different meanings.
In its half-witted way, my construction of a new joke within the same words is reminiscent of the brilliant moment in Beyond the Fringe where Jonathan Miller ponders the meaning of “that marvellous unpunctuated motto over the lavatory, saying: gentlemen lift the seat”. He asks: “Is it a sociological description, a definition of a gentleman, which I can take or leave… or perhaps it’s a loyal toast?” In this case, of course, he’s found two extra meanings within the same phrase “gentlemen lift the seat”. Miller is, for comic effect, deliberately missing the intended meaning of the motto.
The extra joke that I’d found within Emo’s joke was sufficiently unfunny for me to look again at Emo’s comment. I sensed I’d got the wrong end of the stick. I read it again. I found myself being led by the way he’d written the words to shout them out (in my head): “Hadrian! HADRIAN!” shouting the second Hadrian louder… and then I got it.
Getting the joke
The words “Hadrian! HADRIAN!” are a reference to the iconic scene in the 1976 film Rocky, where a beaten and bloody Rocky Balboa (played by Sylvester Stallone), having gone the distance with Apollo Creed, shouts out the name of his girlfriend: “Adrian! Adrian!”
These words (and they way they’re shouted) are mimicked in Emo’s punchline. Precisely why this is funny has a lot to do with the cultural heritage of that moment in the film when Stallone is in the ring, his face a pummelled drooling mess, his mouth a harrowing diagonal of suffering and strength — barely able to stand, jostled by microphones and journalists, he ignores their questions and instead yells out into the crowd: “Adrian!”
He yells it twice, the second time louder than the first. Part of the brilliance of the joke is that Emo mimics the increase in desperation of Stallone’s yells by putting the second HADRIAN! in capitals — in a way insisting that the voice of Stallone come out in his text. (There’s a sense, illustrated here, in which all comedy is bullying).
Emo constructs his comment in such a way that he creates, in the mind of someone getting the joke, a simplified or stylized version of the mental mathematics that he performed in coming up with it in the first place. The difference, obviously, is that when Emo saw the comic potential in Adrian/Hadrian the punchline wasn’t there: he had to create it himself, in order to enable other people follow him to the comedic place he’d managed to get. Emo might simply have enjoyed a quiet chuckle to himself at the idea of Stallone’s voice yelling “Hadrian” but instead he externalised this idea, crystallizing it into precise language, formulating it in such a way that the words can function as a joke — writing it in such a way that the joke works.
It’s a very good joke, but it’s by no means straightforward — it’s barely even a “joke” as we would normally understand the term. It’s not as though someone could stand on stage and deliver this combination of words and get a laugh. That said, it is an extremely typical form of humour: a quip about a news story — a comic gloss on a piece of information about the world, in which the report of some event or other is, as it were, “mined” for comedy. Having been unearthed by Emo, the joke is then displayed above the headline, much as the pair of boxing gloves were dug up and then displayed by an archeologist, alongside a label which informs the museum-goer about the find — which, in this case, could be precisely same information that Emo uses as the set-up for his joke: “Rare Roman boxing gloves found near Hadrian’s Wall”. The exact same sentence explaining both an item in a museum and a joke on Twitter.
Finding, looking for, discovering, searching… this group of related metaphors are a common way of describing the creation of humour. As if the joke is somewhere within a sentence or a story, it just need to be found. As I said earlier, Jonathan Miller “found two extra meanings within the same phrase”. These are common expressions in a writing room: “Where’s the joke?” — “I know there’s a joke here somewhere”.
Related to this is what the comedian Anthony Jeselnik says about the discipline of writing jokes: “I keep it short. The wording’s very important… I have this idea, I can make it work… how can I hide the punchline in as few words as possible. And be super quick and efficient about it.” In other words, having found a joke he then hides it again so it can be re-discovered by his audience. Getting a joke is finding it again.
Making the joke
Emo sensed a joke lurking in the headline. There’s already, it’s worth noting, a slightly comical flavour to the story: a knowingness in the tone of the headline, an awareness that it’s describing an odd, anachronistic scenario. Besides which, boxing gloves are not the least cartoonish items in the world.
The headline, as Emo encountered it, contains various possibly useful details that might be leveraged into humour: various categories, items, ideas. Here’s a list of them — not necessarily an exhaustive list, but here’s what someone looking for jokes might notice (or not):
- Roman / Romans
- Boxing gloves
- Roman boxing gloves
- Boxing / fighting in Roman times
- Boxing in general
- Rare boxing gloves
- Rare items generally
- Old gloves
- Archeology / archeologists
- Something that’s been found
- Something that’s been lost
- Something that’ s been lost since Roman times
- Something that’s been buried for a long time
- Hadrian’s Wall
- The name Hadrian
- Big walls
- Walls in general
- Romans fighting Scots
- Walls in Scotland
- Something that’s been dug up in Scotland
- Scotland in Roman times
- Boxing / fighting in Scotland
Some of the entries on the list are individual details — the conceptual “atoms” of the headline, as it were — others are combinations of concepts or broader themes. A list such as this isn’t actually drawn up, obviously, in anything like these explicit terms in the mind of anyone who’s scanning the headline for a possible joke. But it gives an idea of some the things that might bubble up within the consciousness of someone who’s looking for something they can use within the headline, something they can grab onto and twist into a joke. They’re starting points for chains of thought, like words spoken by a psychologist in a session of free association. “Boxing gloves”, what does that trigger?
Anyone wanting to make a joke based on this headline is going to have to pay some kind of attention to the elements within it. Of course, it’s possible to attach to the headline an utterly unrelated remark like “Ed Sheeran’s lower lip” and hope that in some surrealistic fashion it will turn out amusing, but it probably won’t. Some kind of work has to be done if the joke is going to work. Bits and pieces of information are going to have to be extracted and employed, much as a caricaturist will latch onto a few distinctive features of a person’s face and use them as the comic premise of their caricature. If they just draw a kettle in a soap dish their customer might ask for their money back.
In the headline in question, the most obvious clusters of ideas are those around boxing, Romans and the Scots. Even though Hadrian’s Wall isn’t actually in Scotland — it lies for its full length in England — in terms of the cultural and conceptual baggage it brings to the headline, Hadrian’s Wall has infinitely more to do with Scotland and the Scots than it does with the English. No one except the most pedantic geographer will hear the name “Hadrian’s Wall” and think “oh yes, the north of England”. In fact, the idea of marauding Scots fighting on the Scottish border might even evoke a memory of the film Braveheart — set more than a millennium after than the boxing gloves were lost (in comedy, ideas don’t always have to be factually accurate in order to be comically useful or ‘hit home’, but that’s a whole other matter).
Back in Emo’s brain, before the joke had been made, the matter of the headline is chewed over. Concepts are pushed to absurdity. Likenesses are noticed. Techniques and joke structures used by the comic in the past are brought to bear upon the headline. All with the aim of finding the joke. Not that there’s ‘one joke’ to be made, no single association which is the ‘correct’ one to make — any more than there’s one kind of joke that can be made. There might be a joke lurking here which refers to the long and rich history of Scottish punch-ups. Or the idea that a 2,000 year old piece of leather was recently dug up might inspire a cruel mind to draw a parallel with the texture of some famous person’s face. The comment on the headline doesn’t necessarily even have to be verbal. The funniest companion to the headline might be a photograph, or a raised eyebrow, or an obscene gesture, or a five minute modern dance.
Who knows the bizarre avenues of thought Emo’s mind will have hopscotched down in the hope of discovering something amusing? He may even have come up with a completely different punchline which was seventeen or perhaps eighteen times funnier than the one he tweeted, premised upon the relative lengths of Hadrian’s Wall and the Great Wall of China, a punchline so extraordinarily funny it would have earned him the presidency of the Royal Academy of Arts and a Nobel Prize for Literature, but then was distracted by someone going door to door selling carpets from the back of a van, and by the time he’d got back to his writing den he’d completely forgotten it. Perhaps one day he’ll remember it, but until such time we have to work with what we’ve got.
What we can say is this: various ideas and references (such as boxing) can be extracted from the headline and then combined with each other or with other ‘external’ but related ideas (like, say, the commonly supposed proclivity of Scots towards fighting) to form a larger structure of meaning, or possible meanings. Barely consciously, in the mind of the comic, associations are made, considered, dropped, picked up again, recombined… until a germ of a joke is found.
The process of ‘finding the comedy’ in a headline like this might well not be a conscious process at all: it might, in actuality, take the form of a sudden fanciful ‘seeing’ of a joke, an undeliberate, unselfconscious flash of humour. Or it might be the result of a laborious, jaded examination of the details, undertaken in a state of painful self-awareness, in order to craft a joke (something like this might occur, for example, in the uninspired mind of a writer at the end of the day on a topical comedy show). Emo, on this particular occasion, having had his interest piqued, may have been more or less consciously directing his attention towards the details of the headline with the aim of discovering something funny in it — but the extent to which that’s the case, or not, is something only he would know, and might very well not. Let’s focus instead on the process.
What does Emo find in the headline? In the case of “Rare Roman boxing gloves found near Hadrian’s Wall”, the boxing gloves leap out: not least because they’re the focal point of the headline. It might, in fact, seem a bit tenuous to make a joke about one of the lesser aspects of the story, like, say, the finding of things near big walls or recent archeological finds. Emo ends up extracting two key elements from the headline: the idea of boxing and the name Hadrian, of which the first — the idea of boxing — is primary. It’s what sparked the chain of thought, clearly.
The headline again: “Rare Roman boxing gloves found near Hadrian’s Wall”.A brutal reduction of the flurry of ideas and associations in Emo’s brain into a single chain of thoughts (and pretending for a moment that the metaphor “chain of thoughts” goes any way towards describing it) would be something like this:
[boxing gloves] ⇒ [boxing] ⇒ [the film Rocky]
At each “step” (they’re not steps) all kinds of other associations are swirling about: once Emo’s brain has got to boxing, it might go to Muhammad Ali, Don King, the Queensbury Rules, the Rumble in the Jungle, head injuries, throwing in the towel etc. etc. And once it’s got to the film Rocky, everything from the theme tune ‘Eye of the Tiger’ to stars-and-stripes boxing shorts are darting about as possible routes forward. Rocky punching meat in the meat freezer? Hmm. Doesn’t go anywhere. Doesn’t tie in with the story. What else happens in Rocky? The training sequence. He runs up and down some steps. He fights a Russian. Or is that Rocky 4…? Come on: what happens in Rocky? And which point the alarm bells go off in Emo’s brain, and he gives a high-pitched shriek of triumph which startles his long-suffering cat: at the end of the movie, Stallone shouts the name of his girlfriend, Adrian!
The association Adrian/Hadrian streaks across Emo’s brain like an immensely satisfying meteor. He’s found the clincher. He’s forged a link across the millennia between some recently unearthed Roman boxing gloves and an iconic (and completely over-the-top) scene from perhaps the most famous boxing movie of all time.
The chain of associations couldn’t possibly have begun with the name “Hadrian”, like so…
[Hadrian] ⇒ [Adrian] ⇒ [Adrian!] ⇒ [Rocky] ⇒ [boxing] ⇒ [boxing gloves]
… because the Hadrian/Adrian rhyme is so much weaker than the boxing/Rocky link (and, in fact, is only made possible by the boxing/Rocky association).
Once made, somewhere deep in Emo’s skull, this boxing/Rocky/Hadrian/Adrian complex of associations still has to be crystallized into words on the page. At this point Emo’s artistry comes into play: with a sure hand and a keen ‘knowledge of what’s funny’ (a clumsy way of describing the application of a sense of humour) he types two words into Twitter, re-casting Sylvester Stallone’s longing cry to his girlfriend as “Hadrian! HADRIAN!” and the joke is made. It only requires someone to come along and spring the trap.
Getting the joke (Part Deux)
The process whereby someone gets the joke would involve a kind of fluttering dialectic, back and forth, between the punchline and the headline…
[Hadrian! HADRIAN!] ⇄ [Rare Roman boxing gloves found near Hadrian’s Wall]
This back and forth (if you could so call it) takes place under the shadow of the question: What has “Hadrian! HADRIAN!” got to do with “Rare Roman boxing gloves found near Hadrian’s Wall”? And if you manage to see the link, the Rocky road between punchline and set-up, you get to re-unearth the laugh that Emo re-buried for you.
If I’d never seen the film Rocky or knew about that moment at the end where he cries out for his girlfriend then that’s where I’d have been left: washed up, unwittingly, on an island of my own ignorance, wondering whether Emo had lost his touch. If you don’t know the Rocky reference you literally can’t get the joke. You’re seeing a puzzle without the one clue you need to solve it. The joke has been hidden but you don’t have a map that tells you where to dig.
The fact that Emo’s “Hadrian! HADRIAN!” joke requires an awareness of the iconic scene from Rocky and the performance of a Sylvester Stallone impression in your head adds to the satisfaction it provides to the “joke getter” — you feel like you’re, in a sense, doing some of the work to get the joke to exist. You feel part ownership of the punchline. Perhaps, in a way, that’s true of every joke that anyone laughs at — you have to do some kind of work to make it work. This is exactly what happened to me: I got the special joy of initially thinking Emo’s joke was not that great and then realising it was brilliant. But my laugh (when I finally understood the reference) wasn’t simply a laugh of recognition or nostalgia, like the comics are hoping for who ask “do you remember fax machines? or Cherry Coke?” I had been forced, by Emo, to say his punchline in the voice of Stallone. He’d snared me into participating in the joke; in a sense he’d tricked me into co-creating it (because if I’m not roaring it in my head like Stallone roared it in the movie, it’s not the punchline).
It’s a peculiar punchline, let’s face it, but it gets the laugh. It actually requires the reader to perform (internally) an impression of Sylvester Stallone yelling half-coherently in Rocky. The strong suspicion that this two-word punchline would get a laugh, i.e. would work, is what led Emo to send it out into the world: comfortable in the knowledge that he’s only typed two words — so that even if the joke misfired, it’s not that exposing. It could be passed off as a casual, tossed-out quip, although when it comes to making jokes I suspect that Emo Philips is anything but frivolous.