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  • Writer's picturePeter VanderPoel

The Allure of Amb... Part II Stop Me If You've Heard This One Before...

The Yugo was a compact, inexpensive automobile imported from the former Yugoslavia in the late 1980’s early 1990’s. That they were famously unreliable is well-known to Americans who were of driving age and familiar with business news or automobile trends at the time.

A Joke in Three Acts:

Q. Why do Yugo’s have heating elements in the rear window?

A. To melt any ice and snow that accumulates on the rear window, allowing for easier de-icing and improved visibility.

Q. Why do Yugo’s have heating elements in the rear window?

A. To keep the carpet from drying out

Q. Why do Yugo’s have heating elements in the rear window?

A. To keep your hands warm while you’re pushing them.

A common structure of a joke follows the third, standard pattern. It uses ambiguity as leverage, It hints at an obvious answer which, if used, would be informative but not funny, or perhaps a random answer which would be bizarre and also not funny. The funny punchline is tangent to the obvious answer, with a twist. That’s why most people start smiling before they hear the punch line. Knowledge of joke construction and the topic set up the delicious anticipation fueled by ambiguity which whets the appetite even before delivery of the punchline.

‘Knock-knock’ and ‘Dad’ jokes are mostly of this ilk.

This prototypical joke construction requires not only the ear, but also the the engagement of the listener. If the listener’s background doesn’t include knowledge of the topic or familiarity with the obvious answer then the twist, too, is unmoored; i.e. those with no knowledge of a) the short and unhappy reign of the Yugo or b) the real reason for the heating elements in the rear window would not ‘get it’.

So, too, with trivia.

Here are three examples:

In the 1600’s a group of ship owner’s would meet at a coffee shop next to the River Thames in England and literally wait for their ships to come in. When a ship arrived safely home the owner would make back expenses and have a profit from the voyage. If, as happened on occasion, the ship did not come back then the entire adventure was a loss, not just for the ship owner but for the families of the captain and crew. Over time, these ship owners would put a small amount of  money in a pot each time they met and, should a ship not return, the unfortunate ship owner would be given all the money in the pot.

Q - What was the name of the coffee shop?

A-You’ll have to read to the end…savor the amibiguity

Compare that with another trivia question

Q-There  are (4) state capitals that have the word ‘City’ in them.

A- Salt Lake City, UT; Oklahoma City, OK; Jefferson City, MO; Carson City, NV

And a third

Q-Licking a stamp provides how many calories to the licker?

A- 0.1

Which trivia is ‘best’?

I would argue the first, for two reasons: It is a story, rather than a recitation of bland fact and the question is drawn from a seemingly insignificant detail from the story. That makes the revelation that much more resonant is when it ties to knowledge the listener (may) already have. “Ahh, I should have known!”

The second  trivia question is a simple recitation of fact, no story, but the brain work still gets the payoff when the answers are revealed as US states and Capitals are shared knowledge for many.

The third, for me, barely registers. Trivia without joy might be better classified as ‘minutiae’; where trivia morphs into trivial- The answer doesn’t matter.

The puzzle pages in the newspaper provide a similar entertainment. Crossword puzzles provide a mini- dopamine hit with each word revealed. That revelation, most often instantaneous, is made potent by the lack of knowing that immediately precedes it.

Themed crossword puzzles provide another tier of that enjoyment, when the answers not only respond to the clue, but are also related to other answers in the puzzle-the revelation is doubly potent.

There is a flood of joy in the dénouement of trivia and crossword puzzles and jokes as it information already resident in our memory or tangent to it; there the whole time, but the synapses that connected the question to the answer had not yet fired. Once again, the anticipation, the ambiguity, is just as delicious as the revelation; both are integral to the experience.

As for those anxious English ship Owners…

A- The name of the coffee shop was “Lloyds” and marked the birthplace of the insurance industry and is the namesake of Lloyds of London, perhaps the most famous insurance company in the world.

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