Two Offhand Observations Regarding the Joke About Three Scotsmen Sitting on a Fence

by David Kennedy Bird

In several previous posts to this blog [this one here, for instance, and this other one, and that one over there], the classic joke about three Scotsmen sitting on a fence has come up. Given the somewhat unconventional nature of this joke, some of our readers may have experienced no small level of confusion. In this post, we’ll attempt to address a couple of the tough questions that you, our loyal readership, have no doubt struggled with.

The racial slur angle

“Why Scotsmen?” you may have been wondering. “I’m not really accustomed to jokes about Scotsmen. Are Scotsmen funnier than other ethnic groups?”

Well, now, that’s an excellent question. The Irish, for instance, would find jokes about Scotsmen exceedingly funny, as would the English. In America, we tend not to be as sensitive to these finer distinctions. “Scottish, Irish, whatever,” we might be tempted to say. “They all live way over THERE.”

[Given the quality of our American educational systems, some of us might become a bit disoriented when saying “over there” and suddenly realize that we have no idea what direction Scotland and Ireland are in. We might sort of spin around in a desultory manner, and find ourselves pointing toward (New) California, or perhaps Birmingham, Alabama. But that may be a topic for another post.]

Are Scotsmen really all that funny? That’s the question we’re coming down to. What’s so darn funny about Scotsmen?

After all, the joke isn’t about the consumption of alcohol, which is one direction from which the Scots (according to those who traffic in such lore) might be vulnerable. And the joke isn’t about notorious levels of thriftiness, which is another possible vulnerability the Scots might be subject to (or so i’m told, by people who appear to be well informed). And it’s not about the tendency to pick a fight, which is (according to the experts) yet a third characteristic for which these redoubtable people might be known.

But no: the joke isn’t about any of these themes. It’s about sitting on a fence, a practice for which the Scots are not widely known.

These are deep waters, indeed.

Perhaps what makes the joke work is precisely the fact that (in America, anyway) there are no clearly-drawn stereotypes connected to the Scots. They are a blank slate to us. If we were in England, then a joke referencing the thrift, combativeness, or patterns of alcohol consumption of the Scots might be met with an enthusiastic audience and gales of laughter. But in America, our ethnic prejudices tend to be patterned differently, and many Americans have only the vaguest notion of what a Scotsman is. So a joke about Scotsmen lays before us endless possibilities, an infinity of possible directions.

In short — in an American context, anyway — Scotsmen are a bit like flockbinkers: even if you’ve no idea what they are, they can still be awfully fun to build a joke around.

The number of Scotsmen

Three Scotsmen? Why not two, four, or seven? Does the fence have a maximum Scotsman capacity, kind of like an elevator? If we were to load a fourth Scotsman onto the fence, would it collapse?

Does the number of Scotsmen featured in the joke really matter?

Well, the “Three Scotsmen Sitting on a Fence” joke is part of a joke-telling tradition in which the joke is set up into three parts. You might recognize this form, from such jokes as “A Parson, a Priest, and a Rabbi Go into a Bar” or its cousin, “Politician A, Politician B, and Politician C Are About to Parachute out of an Airplane.” The three-part joke has a character of its own; it has its own center of gravity.

There is a fearful symmetry to the presence of three Scotsmen in the joke, that would be lost if we were to add another Scotsman, or (horrors!) subtract one.

Think about it. If we were to say, “So, there were these five Scotsmen sitting on a fence, see…” your automatic gut response would almost certainly be, “No! That’s not right! Stop it! GO NO FURTHER!” You would sense, at an intuitive level, that there are not, cannot be, five Scotsmen sitting on the fence. There are three. Three Scotsmen sitting on the fence. And all is well with the world.

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Perhaps, in a future post, we can address some more questions that you have doubtless struggled with regarding our three Scotsmen. For instance, the vexing issue of the incomplete character of the joke. Why must the joke remain unfinished? Why not just go ahead and complete the darn thing, so that everyone can heave a sigh of relief and go to bed?

And, furthermore, why a fence? Must it be a fence that they’re sitting on? If the three Scotsmen were sitting on anything else — a Volkswagen, for instance, or an overturned canoe — would the joke be so rip-roaringly funny?

Good questions indeed, dear reader, and we shall address them in due time.