Many varying types of jokes have been a part of the human experience for millennia, and likely were used before our oldest historical records were made. The usual intent in telling a joke or in playing a joke on someone is to produce laughter, and to portray human imperfections in a humorous light. The types of jokes enjoyed by modern cultures include puns or plays on words, practical jokes, clever observations about similarities and differences, and simple question/answer jokes, among others.
A pun is a play on words that takes advantage of similarities between words or phrases. One of the most commonly known puns is a play on the name of one of the bones of the upper arm, called the humerus. This bone is popularly referred to as the “funny bone,” due to its proximity to a sensitive area of the elbow and a pun between “humerus” and “humorous.”
Several types of jokes are not necessarily verbal in nature, but are jokes nonetheless, and these are collectively known as practical jokes. In a practical joke, an unsuspecting person is led into a frustrating or uncomfortable -- but ideally harmless -- situation. Once the person realizes he has been used for a joke, humor ensues at that person’s expense.
An example of a practical joke would be what is sometimes called the invisible rope trick. In this joke, two people stand in the middle of a residential street at dusk, and when a car approaches, pretend to stretch a rope across the street in the path of the car. Due to the low light, the driver of the car cannot see that no rope is present, and will often slow down or stop, sometimes becoming angry at the two individuals, while their friends look on in laughter from a short distance away.
Many comedians make liberal use of funny observations regarding similarities and differences between people and things. The comedian Demitri Martin, for example, has written an entire comedy song in this vein, called “Sames and Opposites,” in which he observes, “An ex-girlfriend is the same thing as an okay movie. I liked it at the time but I don’t want to see it again.” These types of jokes tend to be among the most common and the most timeless.
Ethnic jokes often poke fun at perceived differences between people of different ethnic heritage. These can be considered offensive, and are best used among close friends rather than in mixed company. Self-deprecating humor can be similar in some ways to racial jokes, but in this case, the humor is directed at oneself, rather than outward, avoiding the possibility of offense. For example, the billionaire investor Warren Buffet was once told by a reporter that people in the financial world watched his every move. He responded, “Believe me, I’ve been watching my every move for years, and I’m not that impressed.”
Question/answer jokes can serve a variety of humorous purposes, and can incorporate other joke types in them. For instance, jokes that begin with a question such as “How many ______ does it take to replace a light bulb?” may involve puns or taboo humor in them, as well as cultural observations. This question/answer format is among the oldest types of jokes that are still in use.