I thought I’d start this year with a joke.
What did Hannibal say when he saw the elephants?
"Oh no! Gooseberries."
(Hannibal was colour blind.)
I first read this joke in 2020 in a book called Silly Jokes; a Pocketful of Jokes, attributed to an author called Anonymouse. The jokes in the book were pretty bad, many of them baffling but this one was so bad, it stuck deep in my head and I chose to highlight it in my review.
Generally, you can understand a bad joke. You can at least see which space the joke is supposed to occupy, the intention of it but the Hannibal/elephant/gooseberry joke doesn’t reward from any angle. It’s not just a case of not getting it, there’s no 'it' to get. It’s a complete non-joke. What is the relationship between elephants and gooseberries? What has colour blindness to do with it?
I went about telling people this joke and getting baffled reactions. Nobody could work out what the joke was, or what it was even supposed to be. I told this joke to old people, young people, people from four different continents… no one, not one person could even parse the vague intention of this joke. I concluded it must simply be an anti-joke and tried to move on with my life.
However, the joke wouldn’t leave me alone. I was looking through the book-corner in the class at work, weeding out the books that had got old hat and replacing them, when I found The Ha Ha Bonk Book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. Unlike Silly Jokes, The Ha Ha Bonk Book is not an anonymous, cheap cash-grab but about as prestigious as a joke book can get - and it had a variation of the incomprehensible joke. But there was a twist. There were two parts to it.
What did Tarzan say when the elephants went up the hill?
“Oh look, elephants.”
What did Jane say when the elephants went up the hill?
“Oh look, grapes.”
(She was colourblind.)
The Tarzan part of the joke even makes sense, in a bathetic, anti-climax sort of way. It sets up a ‘wacky’ answer but Tarzan simply states the obvious. The second part is essentially the same as the earlier Hannibal joke, but here, the speaker is Jane, and the elephants are confused for grapes and not gooseberries. This would suggest the speaker and the fruit aren’t essential to the joke, but the parenthesis about colour-blindness is.
The Ha Ha Bonk Book was published in 1982, whereas Silly Jokes came out in 2005. Somewhere in those twenty-three years, the second part of the joke had become detached from the first. Not that it makes much difference, the second part still makes no sense, even with the information of the first part.
The answer came, as it often does, on Wikipedia. There is an entry for elephant jokes, which were a fad in the 1960s, especially after a card company released a set of elephant joke trading cards. The entry features a range of elephant jokes, emphasising how they pull at the logical edges of what elephants are, revelling in their own absurdities. It also illustrates how they work best in runs, with their absurdities building on each other.
The first example of the Hannibal/elephant/plum gooseberry joke was told by an amateur comedian known as Mike Elephant on a programme called The Gonk Show. His version involves Tarzan and Jane but the fruit, this time, are plums. There’s also a third, and most important element.
“What’s the difference between an elephant and a plum?”
“What did Tarzan say when he saw the elephants coming?
“Here come the elephants.”
What did Jane say when she saw the elephants coming?
“Here come the plums.” She was colourblind.
The whole colourblind element is not a joke in itself, it’s a callback. If the only difference between elephants and plums is the colour, then a colourblind person wouldn’t know the difference between them. Its absurdity built on absurdity - a cumulative effect that is less funny for each little prod but for the overwhelming avalanche of silliness. However, the joke now actually makes sense.
What must have happened is, that the original joke run was included in joke books in the 60s. Somehow, as joke books plundered other joke books, the joke run (which makes sense of the colourblindness section) was separated into parts. So, by the time The Ha Ha Bonk books comes out, the Tarzan and Jane part exists together, but the essential ‘what’s the difference between an elephant and -fruit-?’ has disappeared. The fruit has changed to a grape, presumably because of a different elephant joke;
“What happened when the elephant stepped on the grape?”
“I don’t know.”
“It let out a little wine.”
When we get to Silly Jokes, it’s so removed from context to be utterly incomprehensible. The author/compiler/hack has obviously found the joke in another book, not understood it but decided someone must find it funny because it’s in joke books. They probably changed the fruit to gooseberry because it’s a fruit with a funny name, and to change Jane to Hannibal because he has a historic link with elephants.This especially makes sense if the author/compiler/hack found the joke about some ‘Jane’ without the Tarzan part.
…And so, a joke that works was abstracted and separated into a brick wall of sense and meaning, and it only took 40 years.
No wonder jokes from 4,000 years ago make no sense to us. There’s a famous Sumerian joke that’s been doing the rounds, it says;
"A dog entered into a tavern and said, 'I cannot see anything. I shall open this.”
It makes no sense. Academics have bashed at the text and tried to make something from it, but if the Tarzan/Jane/colourblind joke can become nonsense so soon, there’s nothing that can be done with the dog in a bar joke. It's funny what a fragile thing meaning is, and how little it seems to matter to publishers