all flockbinkers are treadknicious… and other salient observations

Forays into Logic, Whimsy, Meaning, Hilarity, and Nonsense.

Tag: fence

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

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.

 

A Meditation on the Naming of Winter Storms

Not all of the posts to this blog directly concern flockbinkers. As you have doubtless observed, a couple of the posts have been about Scotsmen—three of them—seated, somewhat inexplicably, on a fence. One has been about a fellow named Elvis Wu, who apparently was the Last Philosophy Major. These posts deal with all manner of groovy stuff, including logic and ontology, absurdity and nonbeing, reality and myth, and the nature of rational argument.  The flockbinkers are gravy.

[Editor’s Note:  Well, no: actually ‘flockbinkers’ are not ‘gravy.’  Honestly, people.  It was intended as a figure of speech.  You know, something like, “Amid all this exploration of arcane philosophical topics, how nice to have the flockbinkers around to add a touch of lighthearted surrealism to an otherwise strange and whimsical body of material.  Oh, wait.”]

Therefore, Good Reader, it should come as no surprise to you that the present entry deals with the manner in which winter storms are named.  It fits right in.  Flockbinkers, fence-sitting Scotsmen, Chinese-American philosophy grads, winter storms.  You know, that sort of thing.

It’s a pretty recent habit, this tendency to give names to the wintry equivalent of hurricanes. Those of us who have been around for a few years can count on the fingers of one hand how many years ago it’s been since the idea of naming winter storms would have sounded goofy to the average American. But the Weather Channel has eased us into the mindset, and, like proverbial frogs in a kettle of water being slowly brought to a boil, we are beginning to get used to the frankly ridiculous practice of… let me say this slowly, for emphasis… NAMING… WINTER… STORMS. Giving them NAMES. Giving names to SNOWSTORMS. I’m hoping that if i keep repeating the same thing over and over in slightly different ways, and making judicious use of all-caps, i can help you see how immensely silly it all is.

A Facebook friend of mine put it well a couple of days ago. Here, i’ll call him “Adam” to disguise his identity.

Adam:  Winter Storm “Quantum”? This is why I can’t take the Weather Channel seriously anymore. Their marketing strategy is just too obnoxious. The National Weather Service doesn’t name these storms. The Weather Channel people are literally making this garbage up and the names aren’t even good!  End Rant.

Amen!  Well said, “Adam” (if i may address you by the name i made up for you to safeguard your privacy).

Indeed, after reading “Adam’s” post, i got to thinking: this naming of winter storms is only going to get more and more ridiculous as all of the relatively sensible names get used up. I mean, in the case of hurricanes there are only a few per season, but with these winter storm ‘Matilda’-type weather events coming hard and fast on each other’s heels, they’re going to exhaust the available pool of names in no time flat.

Here’s my prediction.  Two years from now, after all the even remotely plausible names have been snatched up, we will finally get to see what the bottom of the barrel looks like:

Winter Storm Wolfman
Winter Storm Bogeyman
Winter Storm Sauron
Winter Storm Morgoth
Winter Storm “The White Witch”
Winter Storm Voldemort
Winter Storm Darth Vader
Winter Storm Zombie Attack
Winter Storm Johnny Depp
Winter Storm Ahhnold Schwarzenegger

[…a name that one faction within the meteorological community will find just a BIT precious…  “You don’t have to spell the name phonetically, we get it!”]

[This odd little tiff will lead to a delightful string of The Sound of Music-themed storms]

Winter Storm The Von Trapp Family Singers
Winter Storm The Lonely Goatherd
Winter Storm Sixteen Going on Seventeen
Winter Storm Do-Re-Mi
Winter Storm Climb Ev’ry Mountain
Winter Storm Raindrops on Roses and Whiskers on Kittens

[..after which, there will follow an odd but not entirely unpleasing series of winter storms with “rise and shine”-sounding names…]

Winter Storm A Complete Breakfast
Winter Storm Cuppa Joe
Winter Storm Instant Oatmeal
Winter Storm Dunkin’ Donut
Winter Storm Toaster Pastry

[…which latter “storm” will turn out to be a somewhat pathetic flurry that dissipates almost before it’s gotten under way, much to the egg-facedness of the Weather Channel folks, and in a feeble attempt to salvage their reputations, they name the next storm…]

Winter Storm Pop-up Toaster Pastry

[…and things get increasingly abstract from this point onward…]

Winter Storm Molecular Biology
Winter Storm Planetary Astrophysics
Winter Storm Logical Inference
Winter Storm Syntactically Incoherent
Winter Storm Zen
Winter Storm The Sound of One Hand Clapping
Winter Storm Atman Is Brahman
Winter Storm Wes Anderson Movie
Winter Storm Octopus’s Garden

[…which, interestingly, leads to a new series of storms with musical references for names…]

Winter Storm I Am the Walrus
Winter Storm I Am the Eggman
Winter Storm While My Guitar Gently Weeps
Winter Storm John, Paul, George, and Ringo
Winter Storm Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young
Winter Storm The Oxford Comma
Winter Storm The Rolling Stones, But Mostly Just Mick and Keith
Winter Storm Led Zeppelin

[…which last entry nearly doesn’t make the cut, because, interestingly, it really almost sounds like something that a winter storm should be called–an actually kind of sensible criterion that you’d think would come into play more often in this process–but which, by this time, will have become the very last factor on anybody’s mind…]

[…and it’s followed by…]

Winter Storm It’s a Beautiful Day

[…in the wake of this one a heated controversy arises over whether it is even intelligible to name a winter storm “It’s a Beautiful Day”–the irony just seems a bit too rich–the result of which is that a dissenting faction retroactively dubs the blizzard a simplified version of the same thing, “Winter Storm B-Day”–prompting the first group to roll their eyes SO impatiently and complain that it’s a band name, and it really doesn’t make sense if you shorten it, and furthermore, the second group CLEARLY doesn’t get the subtleties of naming a storm…]

[…after which things get kind of ugly, as the two faced-off meteorological communities begin naming storms terrible things simply in order to insult the opposing group…]

Winter Storm Completely Missing the Point
Winter Storm Professional Incompetence
Winter Storm Where Did You Get Your Degree in Meteorology, I Bet It Came With Your Happy Meal
Winter Storm Your Mom
Winter Storm Why Don’t You Just Shut Up
Winter Storm Somebody Got Out of the Wrong Side of the Bed This Morning
Winter Storm I Know You Are But What Am I
Winter Storm Sticks and Stones Can Break My Bones But Words Can Never Hurt Me

[…at which point the public outcry rises to such a fever pitch, that everybody concerned reverts to the rather common-sense position that, hey, you just really don’t need to be naming winter storms…]

Perhaps you find my predictions a bit fanciful?  Just wait, Dear Reader.  Give it two years.  That’s the winter of 2016/2017.  If we don’t begin seeing names like “Winter Storm Disgruntled Postal Worker,” and “Winter Storm I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up,” then contact me and i’ll refund you every penny of the money that you’ve paid to subscribe to this blog.

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

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.

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