An Attempt to Get to the Bottom of This “Three Scotsmen Sitting on a Fence” Thing

by David Kennedy Bird

Greetings, gentle readers.  (As well as those of you who are actually reading the blog.)  (Ba – dumm – chh.)

Several posts ago, i fraudulently claimed that the upcoming post would involve more information about the joke about three Scotsmen sitting on a fence.  I meant well!  I really was intending to talk about that next.  But then i went off on a tangent about my PechaKucha presentation, and then it was Christmas, and what with one thing and another, the Scotsmen got put on a back burner.

As you might well imagine, they were MUCH happier when they were sitting on the fence.  (Ba – dumm – chh.)

Which is where they find themselves once again, because this is the post you’ve been promised, o gentle readers.  (And those of you who are actually reading the blog.  Ba – dumm – chh.)

By way of reminder, let me refresh you on how the “three Scotsmen” joke goes.

“So there were these three Scotsmen sitting on a fence, see.”

That’s it.  That’s the joke.  That’s as far as it ever gets.  That’s all there is.

We-e-ell… that’s not exactly true.  There have been some attempts to finish the joke.  Here’s one of the more noteworthy examples:

So there were these three Scotsmen sitting on a fence, see.

And the first one says,
“All flockbinkers are treadknicious.”

Then the second Scotsman says,
“All wamwams are flockbinkers.”

And the third Scotsman says,
“Would ye rather find y’rself confronted by a self-referential absurdity,
or a non-sequitur disguised as a joke about three Scotsmen?”

A respectful silence followed.

Ahhhh.  Yes.  Now we’re talkin’ ’bout the good stuff.

But, you see, not everyone has been endowed with the philosophical equipment to fully appreciate a joke like that.  Perhaps that’s one reason why the standard form of the joke is the incomplete version, just the opening line.  Because if i try to finish it, the end product will end up just a wee bit too philosophically rich for your average taste.

But there is another finished version of the joke: one which, like the one above, is going to end up on the back of a t-shirt one of these days.

(I hear you tentatively snickering, o less-than-gentle reader.  You thought that was a joke, didn’t you.  Hah!  Note the conspicuous absence of either boldface print or a “ba-dumm-chh” following the statement.  It was most assuredly NOT a joke; it was the condensed form of a business plan.  I would advise you to learn the difference.  But i fear we digress.)  This other version of the joke is of particular interest as we seek to understand just what the joke is all about.  And here it is:

So there were these three Scotsmen sitting on a fence, see.

And the first one says,
“Blah blah blah blah blah.”

Then the second Scotsman says,
“Mumble mumble mumble.”

Then the third Scotsman says,
“Yada yada yada yada.”

Your mistake, of course, was in thinking that just because something is a joke, it’s going to be funny.

You’re what, how old? You should know better by now.

All that was the joke, including the last part.  Well, no: technically, the last part was the part that will follow the joke as it is displayed on the back of the t-shirt.

Man, these t-shirts are going to be something else.

But note what this version of the joke does for us.  It strips the joke down to its constituent elements.  It reveals the underlying skeleton of the joke.  And the joke turns out to have the same form as a great many other three-part jokes.  That form is as follows:

So there were three [entities] [engaged in some activity].

And the first [entity] [A] [says or does something].

And the second [entity] [B] [says or does something that is closely parallel to what A said or did]

And the third [entity] [C] [says or does something that is a startling departure from what A and B said or did, from which dissonance arises the humor value of the joke].

In keeping with that analysis, our joke above about the three Scotsmen is true to form.  The first Scotsman says, “Blah blah blah blah blah.”  The second Scotsman says, “Mumble mumble mumble.”  These are the usual sorts of things that you expect to hear a Scotsman say, when you encounter him seated on a fence.  But then!  Ah!  The third Scotsman!  When we get to him, we are treated to a delightful surprise: he says, “Yada yada yada yada.”

The third Scotsman turns out to be Jerry Seinfeld!

But let’s get back to the pure, unadorned, basic version of the joke.  “So there were these three Scotsmen sitting on a fence, see.”  There is something classic, lean and lovely about the basic version, the default version.  It doesn’t say too much.  It says just enough.  It’s thrifty and economical, in much the same way that Scotsmen are reputed to be.

You can almost mentally supply the rest, if you’ve ever heard a three-part joke.  You can envision the first Scotsman saying something, then the second Scotsman saying something, then the third Scotsman saying something surprising that causes your diaphragm to begin spontaneously leaping up and down, and a sort of staccato wheezing sound come out of your mouth.  All you need is that opening line, and you can experience the joke’s potential all by yourself, with no adult supervision.

It’s almost as if everything the joke was ever destined to be is wrapped up in that opening line, and once you’ve heard the line, the joke’s inner essence begins to unfold within you, like the fruit of the Banyan tree.  Or the flower of the lotus.  Um, or something.

Interestingly, the same principle would likely not work with a different opener.  Observe closely:

“So there were these three kittens in a pet shop window, see.”

Who cares?  No one wants to hear the rest of the joke.  You can just tell it’s not going to be funny.

Or this:

“Okay, so there were these three disgruntled postal workers shooting up a McDonald’s right?”

Nope.  Too risky.  If your listeners are nervous about whether the subject-matter is politically correct, they’re not going to laugh.  They’ll be looking over their shoulders to see if anyone else is laughing.

Or this:

“So there were three intransitive verbs, and they walk into a bar, see.”

Nope.  Too abstract.  Maybe if you’re at a cocktail party with a bunch of grammarians, that one would go over uproariously.  You really need to know your audience.

The point i’m making, the Scotsmen joke has a kind of universal appeal.  As soon as that opening line hits, you’ve got the crowd in the palm of your hand.  They don’t need to hear any more.  They’re happy.  You’ve succeeded.  “So there were these three Scotsmen sitting on a fence, see.”  Just sit back and watch the magic happen.  One business-looking fellow in the middle of the room is thinking, “Now here’s a joke that a man can sink his teeth into.”  And over near the punch bowl, a woman is thinking, “Oooohh, Scotsmen, i bet they’re wearing kilts and everything.”  And off in the corner, a young guy in wire-rims and a turtleneck is thinking, “Golly, i wonder if this joke is going to turn out to have been a self-referential absurdity, or…” (and here he chuckles to himself) “…a non-sequitur disguised as a joke about three Scotsmen?”

See?  Something in it for everybody.