The Deceptions of Humor, The Amusement of Lies
by E. John Winner
The basic claim of this essay is that jokes and lies share similar semiotic structures, both originating in play, and both playing upon audience expectations, by effectively creating a fictitious ‘model world’ of signs that reassure the audience that their expectations will be met (or, in a situation of openly comedic performance, that they will be disappointed in an amusing way). (Indeed, I may go so far as to say that the only difference between a good lie and good joke, is that liars never reveal to the audience that they’re lying.) I do this by first critiquing a joke relayed by Umberto Eco, and then explicating a brief passage by Eco on semiotics and lying. In order to press the investigation, I will write in somewhat stronger terms than my source material suggests, because I am trying to establish a framework for interpretation. A complete theory would need considerably stronger evidence and argumentative finesse than I can provide here.
First, let’s approach at a tangent, which necessarily reveals the basics of what such a theory might account for. What follows came to me while I was watching an eagle fly.
I should explain: An eagle fly is a winged insect of a centimeter in length and half as much in width; it has a protruding head with a fly’s myriad eye formations; notable for the manner in which it ceases to flutter its wings on descent and instead, glides to the surface where it lands.
No, I lied, there’s no such animal, at least as far as I’m aware; if it exists, this will come as an amusing surprise.
The nature of lying begins in the joke. Lying is always a kind of game. The old shell game run by con-artists on the street, whereby a pea is placed under one of three shells, and an participant audience member gambles money on a choice of which of the shells it might be under. But – ha ha – it isn’t under any of them, the con-artist has palmed it. It is a cruel deception, but also a crude joke, presupposing that the participating audience member – the victim of the con, the butt of the joke – has some authority over something the con-artist wants, and from which he or she must be solicited into parting, against his/her better judgment. So the con can be read as a subversion of the gullible player’s authority, and thus spoofs the sense of agency from which that authority derives.
There are other ways to read this exchange, but they all resolve to a model of deception per se – but also for any joke. Expectations are established, then disrupted, their grounding assumptions subverted. Successful deception may have a myriad of rewards; a good joke only laughter.
But which comes first, humor or deception? Without getting deeply into metaphysics or neuroscience here, I think it’s safe to assume they share a point of origin. Infants soon learn to use their own behavior to prompt certain responses from their parents, and will sometimes do so in a manner that appears to be testing the reliability of the behavioral prompt. This is not truly deceptive, but part of the process of learning behavioral communication. Still, an infant may cry as though hungry, when he or she only desires the closeness of the mother’s body. But what else is the infant to do? If the nipple comes along with the body, all the better. But the infant in that instance may then reveal a nascent sense of humor, playing with the nipple, rather than taking to suck, much to the mother’s annoyance. Situations such as this are frequently remarked by mothers as, “I don’t know what the baby wants!”  Perhaps, baby wants an eagle fly.
Umberto Eco is now best known as a writer of dense, entertaining, and thoughtful novels. But he also happens to have written a number of important, well-researched, erudite scholarly texts in the field of semiotics – the study of how humans read the world, and communicate with it, through signs. Traditionally, the role of the scholarly writer has been to produce texts derivative of research and to postulate conclusions such research might suggest, in a language that is technical and precise, but also reasonably clear, at least to other scholars in the field. There can be a certain grace to it. Nonetheless, only the writer of popular literature is allowed the elegance (or brutishness) of wordplay, earned through a kind of stormy love affair with language. In scholarly writing, communication of ideas matters most; in creative writing, a playful construction of an illusion, using only language, is the imperative. It was only after achieving success as a novelist (with The Name of the Rose) that Eco allowed himself a certain leeway in writing his scholarly texts with elegance and even wit, which he had first developed stylistically as a contributor to popular journals of cultural criticism in the later ’60s.
I say this, because we will here review a text by Eco, appearing in an earlier scholarly text (Theory of Semiotics) that happens to be an amusing joke, but rather badly told. It has a real-world aspect (it spoofs confirmation bias in clinical behavioral studies), but removed into a fantasy world of cunning animals, akin to those we find in animated cartoons.
There is an old joke according to which two dogs meet in Moscow, one of them very fat and wealthy, the other pathetically emaciated. The latter asks the former: ‘How can you find food?’ The former zoosemiotically replies: ‘That’s easy. Every day, at noon, I enter the Pavlov Institute and I salivate: Immediately afterwards a conditioned scientist arrives, rings a bell and gives me food.’ 
Verbal humor can be very context-dependent; verbal jokes may rely entirely on historical name recognition, as Eco’s does. Once all memory of the Soviet behavioral scientist Pavlov is lost, the joke will require explanation: In the early 20th century, in a clinical experiment, Pavlov conditioned a dog to salivate in response to the stimuli of a ringing bell, with the reward of food. (It helped to perform this experiment every day at the same time, hence the need to specify a specific hour in the joke.)
In the film The Cocoanuts, Groucho Marx sets up a dinner party audience with the remark “…and that reminds me of the joke about the Irishman,” only to deflate their expectations (but reward the movie-viewer’s) with the anti-climactic “gee, I wish I could remember it.”  Eco’s “old joke” must have been funny once; if only Eco had remembered why. The scholar of the text we have here, considerably reduces the joke’s humor by remaining true to his scholarly commitments. The standardized grammar is precisely given; the eating dog must restate Pavlov’s experiment as close to the original as possible (set time, bell, salivation, food, conditioning). And of course there has to be a professional insider’s comment – the dogs communicate “zoosemiotically,” because we all know that dogs don’t talk.
Frankly, I don’t understand why the fat dog also has to be “wealthy.” Can’t a poor dog deceive the scientists just as well?
The truth is, we don’t need all the information Eco provides us in his joke. Let dogs talk, for the sake of the joke. Don’t duplicate the experiment exactly — that’s overly complicated. And using ‘proper grammar’ in a joke slows the pace of delivery and sounds stilted (unless that effect is part of the humor). Part of the fun of jokes is their chronic abuse of conventional semiotic codes.
I don’t offer the following version of Eco’s joke because I know it to be funnier than his (although I hope so). But I would argue that it is closer to the brevity and pace most Americans expect of a joke.
Two dogs meet in Moscow. One’s very hungry, the other says he eats every day. The first asks “how?” “That’s easy,” says the other, “I go to the Pavlov Institute and salivate; they ring a bell and feed me.”
Every joke creates a fantasy world, wherein our expectations are played. In this particular world, dogs talk. All we need of the experiment is the bell, the salivation, the feeding (the conditioning is presumed, once the signifier ‘Pavlov’ is recognized, and the presumption is part of the humor). While this is acceptable English, it borders on poor grammar; a few words less and it’s in fragments. The whole is only a little more than half as long as Eco’s.
Jokes are allowed to transgress. Groucho can effectively dupe his dinner party audience, then reveal the duping, and thus mock that audience, precisely because this inverts the social expectations of the context. Eco’s version of the joke plays it safe; neither scientists not scholars are sufficiently lampooned to make the joke truly amusing. And jokes require economy of expression. The con-artist can’t allow the victim time to analyze the game.
Which returns us to our primary consideration. Both jokes and lies first generate a fantasy context, an alternate reality, which raises expectations in the audience, only to discredit those expectations. Of course the joke is such, because the audience is made aware of the disappointment in an unexpected way. A good lie will not be noticed as such by the audience (but the liar knows).
In a brief but loaded remark, found in a paper on C. S. Peirce appearing in his The Role of The Reader, Umberto Eco writes:
The self-sufficiency of the universe of content, provided by a given culture, explains why signs can be used in order to lie (and therefore to elaborate ideologies, works of art, and so on). What Peirce calls signs (which to somebody stand for something else in some respect or capacity) are such just because I can use a representamen in order to send back to a fictitious state of the world. Even an index can be falsified in order to signify an event which is not detectable and, in fact has never caused its supposed representamen. Signs can be used in order to lie, for they send back to objects or states of the world only vicariously.  
The receiver of a deceptive representing sign — a sign-as-lie — believes he or she is in the world of the represented, when really the world of the sign is but a model world, composed of signs. The sign-as-lie is given in reference to a catalog of other signs, to the veracity of which the sender is indifferent. (Some may have found my “eagle fly” lie persuasive because it deployed the language — the catalog, or system of signs — of ‘objectivity’ and scientific measurement, thus generating a possible world of scientific knowledge in which ‘eagle flies’ exist as measurable objects.) This catalog of signs linked to and re-enforcing the sign-as-lie, if successful, is rich enough to elaborate a ‘possible world,’ and hence the illusion.
In the real world of the late 19th Century in New York City, the Brooklyn Bridge was built using political pressure and government funds, under agreement that government agencies would own and control it, in the interests of the larger number of those who would have to use it or would experience some socio-economic benefit from it. But in the world of the old con-artist’s sale of the Bridge to tourists, it is privately owned. This was actually a reasonable assumption at the time and for some decades after, since many bridges were indeed privately owned, including, for instance, the only bridges into New Orleans. As privately owned, in the model capitalist world of the con, the Bridge could be sold.
Notice that there’s just enough real-world overlap for the con-game to be believable. If there had been no privately owned bridges at the time, there would have been no contextual information with which to excuse some faith in the con-artist’s offer. I say “excuse,” because — well, why does the victim of the fall so easily for the con? Superficially, of course, we say he or she lacks education, perhaps intelligence, certainly necessary information (that’s why it continues on as a joke, long after its usefulness as a con has been exhausted). But also, a safe inference derived from common American understanding of human nature, is that the victim’s motivation is a desire for a large, recognizable sign of wealth (a big, complicated, human-made object) that can be used to acquire further wealth, through the charge of a toll to cross the bridge. In other words, the victim, motivated by greed and desire for status, has been setting up him/her self for the con by looking for the easy deal that will prove beneficial at not much cost. The model world structured by the con is precisely the world the victim wants to live in. 
But isn’t that true of worlds of comedy as well? They model worlds in which we find it safe to laugh with clever pranksters; to laugh at types of gullible innocents; or, if we’re honest enough, to laugh at ourselves. In the real world study of psychology, Dr. Pavlov’s experiment must be considered critically, but with respect; in the fantasy Moscow of the joke, he’s just a laughable victim of a clever dog’s con.
I have tried to draw out the deep relationship between humor and deception through the generation of model worlds, in which trusted real world signs are manipulated to mislead us into trusting falsifying signs of the model world; perhaps the only way to distinguish the two is by a revelation on the part of the humorist (which we may wait for in vain from the deceiver). And I hope I have indicated that both humor and deception, playing upon the desires and expectations of their audience, cannot be fully articulated except contextually.
E. John Winner holds a doctorate in English (specialties: rhetoric and literary theory) from SUNY Albany. He taught composition as an adjunct for twelve years; then worked as a Licensed Practical Nurse for twelve years. Health issues led him to a non-stressful office job with a security agency in upstate New York.
 I actually tried to find clinical studies on this, on the internet; what I found was a plethora of sites of mothers complaining about this behavior and wondering what to do about it. For instance: http://www.circleofmoms.com/breastfeeding-moms/my-baby-pinches-and-plays-with-my-nipples-is-this-normal-434996 .
 Umberto Eco, A Theory of Semiotics; Indiana U (1978). Page reference missing from the original draft this essay revises and completes.
 The Cocoanuts, Paramount, 1929; directors R. Florey and J. Santley; written by George S. Kaufman and Morrie Ryskind (but including improvisations by the Marx Brothers themselves).
 Umberto Eco, The Role of The Reader; Indiana U (1979). Page 179.
 As simple introduction to semiotics per se, I here reproduce a brief discussion of the relationship between a sign and its object by Charles Sanders Peirce:
Two men are standing on the seashore looking out to sea. One of them says to the other, ‘That vessel there carries no freight at all, but only passengers.’ Now, if the other, himself, sees no vessel, the first information he derives from the remark has for its Object the part of the sea that he does see, and informs him that a person with sharper eyes than his, or more trained in looking for such things, can see a vessel there; and then, that vessel having been thus introduced to his acquaintance, he is prepared to receive the information about it that it carries passengers exclusively. But the sentence as a whole has, for the person supposed, no other Object than that with which it finds him already acquainted. The Objects — for a Sign may have any number of them — may each be a single known existing thing or thing believed formerly to have existed or expected to exist, or a collection of such things, or a known quality or relation or fact, which single Object may be a collection, or whole of parts, or it may have some other mode of being, such as some act permitted whose being does not prevent its negation from being equally permitted, or something of a general nature desired, required, or invariably found under certain general circumstances. C. S. Peirce, “Signs and their Objects;” Collected Papers Vol. 2, sections 230-232; Harvard (1932).
I chose this for its evident resonance with my discussion here. Notice, for instance, that, in introducing the communicative use of sign-object relations, Peirce relates the dialog between two men who clearly feel ease in trusting each other. But what if the one who claims to see the signs is lying? Or what if he suddenly turns the dialog on its head: ‘Ha ha, no steamship, I was only joking!’ Or for that matter, what if the other man replies, ‘you’re kidding,’ or ‘I don’t believe you.’ We see here the beginning of considerable thinking on a host of matters in communications and social psychology. (For further reading on semiotics, I suggest a listing of such to be found at Umberto Eco’s website: http://umbertoeco.com/en/semiotics-links.html)
 The multiplicity of objects a sign may signify is actually a difficult but all important issue in semiotics, and is the chief reason that semiotics is not reducible to logic (and perhaps, arguably, encompasses it – but that would be a different discussion). But see my meditation on the significance of the coffee cup at my blog: https://nosignofit.wordpress.com/2014/09/21/the-vanishing-cup-of-coffee-a-semiotic-mystery/
 But in this hope for a more profitable world, the Brooklyn Bridge purchaser is doubly victimized. As former New York governor Al Smith once remarked on the Al Jolson radio show, it was a big disappointment to discover, once the Bridge was finally opened, that all one could do with it was go to Brooklyn.