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What is a Meta-Joke?

Tricia Christensen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Meta-joke is a term used to describe several different types of jokes. These jokes either refer to themselves as jokes, make jokes about jokes, or use certain tried and true joke openings. This last form could be described in different ways. For instance “guy walks into a bar,” is a template, which then is used to make a variety of different humorous or perhaps not so humorous jokes.

The first type of meta-joke, a self-referential joke, will refer sometime in the story or telling to the fact that it is a joke. For example:

Knock, Knock.
Who’s There?
Lettuce, Who?
Lettuce tell some more bad knock-knock jokes.

As you can see from the above, part of the joke is the fact that the joker knows this is the knock-knock form.

The second type of meta-joke, can either refer to anti-humor, or metahumor, humor about humor. Anti-humor is especially common in standup comedy routines where a comedian will joke about how poorly his jokes are being received. Some comedians using a sort of running line about how the audience is receiving their jokes, generally spoken in a different voice tone than that used for the actual “telling” of jokes or stories. For instance, a one-liner could be followed up with “I’m definitely boring you," addressed to an audience member, or a request to the audience to get the paramedics to “revive” the last joke or the metaphorical “dying” of the comedian.

Bob or Bobcat Goldthwait used to use a running joke in his standup routine, which was both a template and antihumor. He’d state, “My wife is so fat,” prompting the audience to respond by asking how fat she was. To this he’d reply in an upset tone, “She’s just fat, okay, I can’t make a joke about everything!”

The template meta-joke makes fun of a particular form of joke. A famous template involves three people, usually of different religions, nationalities or political background. A joke that begins: “a rabbi, a priest and a imam walk into a bar,” is a meta-joke template of two types, evoking the bar joke, and the three guys joke. But this type makes fun of the template, instead of just resorting to it. It could be something as simple as “ A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into a bar and have a drink,” or “A rabbi, a priest and an imam walk into a bar and the fun begins.”

A template meta-joke is supposed to be told in sarcastic fashion, making fun of a specific joke genre. When properly used they can be funny. Templates include blonde jokes, how many of something it takes to screw in a light bulb, and a variety of others. They’re often commentary on how “tired” some of the jokes in the same setting are getting.

Most meta-joke styles fit into more than one category, because most reference themselves and are in a way antihumor. The funny part about them is that they’re really not meant to be funny. The whole category of being funny about being funny is called metahumor, into which the meta-joke fits nicely.

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Tricia Christensen
By Tricia Christensen , Writer
With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor, Tricia Christensen is based in Northern California and brings a wealth of knowledge and passion to her writing. Her wide-ranging interests include reading, writing, medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion, all of which she incorporates into her informative articles. Tricia is currently working on her first novel.

Discussion Comments

By dill1971 — On Nov 28, 2010

Just last week, I was the “butt” of a knock-knock joke. My preacher says to me “I’ve got a great knock-knock joke, you start it off”.

So, I, being as gullible as I am, said “knock-knock” and he said “who’s there” and I, of course, looked ridiculous because I had not an answer.

Tricia Christensen

Tricia Christensen


With a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and years of experience as a Language & Humanities contributor,...
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