“So There Were These Three Scotsmen Sitting on a Fence, See…”

There is a joke that tends to come up from time to time in my teaching.  It’s a particularly clever joke about three Scotsmen sitting on a fence.

The interesting thing about this joke… one of the many interesting things about this joke… is that it does not continue past the opening line.

No, really.  This is all that there is to the joke: “So there were these three Scotsmen sitting on a fence, see…”  On occasion it has been known to continue: “…and the first Scotsman says…”  But that’s as far as it’s ever gone, at least in my classroom.  I suppose maybe in someone else’s classroom, perhaps in Springfield, Ohio, there may be a completed version of the joke.  But i’ve never heard it.  I only know the first line, so that’s all i relay to my students.

For some reason, it’s still funny.

Perhaps this is because the joke is not straitjacketed by a sense of inevitability.  It is not bound to some preordained destiny.  There’s nothing in the joke forcing the third Scotsman to do or say anything in particular.  It is a joke founded in freedom, and in freedom there is joy.

It is a joke alive with possibility.  It can go anywhere; it can take us down any highway we want to travel.  It’s a joke that was born to run; it’s a joke that rides through mansions of glory.  It’s a joke with redemption beneath its dirty hood.  It’s a joke ready to trade in its wings on some wheels.  It’s a joke that’s riding out tonight to case the Promised Land.  It’s a joke that haunts this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets.

It’s a joke that Bruce Springsteen himself would not be ashamed to find himself on the same stage with.

Think about it.  Most jokes begin at Point A, move through some sort of narrative and end up at Point B.  If the joke’s not funny, then that’s that.  Game over.  You blew it.  There’s no going back.  You can’t start over again and say, “Oh wait, i’m sorry, those Lutheran ministers weren’t in a canoe… they were in a pontoon boat…”  It’s too late.  Once you carried on past the opening line and filled the joke in with lurid detail, you froze those Lutheran ministers in space and time, and in the chill waters of Lake Wobegon.  There’s no pulling them out now.  Not even Garrison Keillor could pull them out, and he’s not half bad at that sort of thing.

No.  The advantage of the joke about three Scotsmen sitting on a fence is that it’s all about freedom.  So long as you never venture beyond that opening line, you haven’t forced the Scotsmen to do anything against their will, and you haven’t forced your listeners to settle for a disappointing outcome.  Your audience are free to imagine the Scotsmen getting into unbelievably uproarious shenanigans, or, if your audience happens to be the Presbyterian General Assembly, the Scotsmen are free to remain stoically seated on that fence until Kingdom Come.  (However, the aforementioned Presbyterian elders would not likely object to the joke having a pre-ordained conclusion, nor to the free will of the Scotsmen being abrogated, so perhaps i ought not to have introduced them into my example.)

The point is this.  If you begin a joke and then leave the possibilities open, you are doing a favor both for your listeners and the characters in the joke.

This joke about three Scotsmen seated on a fence, for instance.  It’s the perfect archetype of the open-ended joke.  What are the Scotsmen going to do?  Are they going to say something?  Why are they sitting on a fence?  Aren’t they supposed to be working?  Is there a bottle of whiskey involved?

With open-endedness comes not only freedom, but limitless variety.  Infinite permutations of the joke are possible.  You can, for instance, turn it into an ethnic slur against Scotsmen: a type of humor that doesn’t really fly here in Southeast Tennessee… but is quite popular, i’m told, among the Irish.  Or you can turn it into a joke glorifying the Scots for their thrift and good sense.  Just be careful; the farther you work your way into it, and the more of a concrete character you assign to the Scotsmen, the more you limit their freedom and risk sinking them in the middle of lake Wobegon.

You can, of course, use it as the template for a typical three-part gag, in which the first two parts are parallel and the third section packs the punchline.  I know you’re familiar with the format.  “So there were three eggs frying in a pan.  And the first egg says… blah blah blah… then the second egg says… blah blah blah… then the third egg says… blah blah blah blah blah [something funny and unexpected].”

Or: “So there were these three Estonian midgets working for the circus, right?  And the first one walks out onto the tightrope, etc.  Then the second one walks out onto the tightrope, etc.  Then the third one grabs an enormous watermelon, leaps onto the tightrope, and blah blah blah.  Funny punchline.”

Side Note:  In setting up a joke, you have to be careful not to make offensive observations about any particular communities of culture or belief.  My gamble is that the community of Estonian midgets is so minuscule, and the readership of this blog so limited, as to place me in no danger of having offended anyone.

Happily, Scotsmen are not easily offended, particularly if you’ve left them sitting on a fence and have made no claims about the aftermath that might be construed as even remotely insulting.  Far from giving offense, this seemingly innocuous (and, arguably, idiotic and pointless) Scotsmen joke serves, in fact, to open up before us a world of mystery.

What is it that makes a joke funny?  What is humor?  Why is it that we take joy in the absurd, the ironic, the unexpected, and sometimes even the disastrous?

And why is it that merely saying the words, “So there were these three Scotsmen sitting on a fence, see…” can elicit laughter from a group of otherwise perfectly intelligent students?

If you’ve never pondered questions like these, then i really don’t see how you can call yourself a philosopher.