This post was written by Dr. John Butler, frequent Bright Club contributor and lecturer in maths at TU Dublin.
The first time I had the honour of performing at Bright Club in 2019, I told the maths joke:
“What’s purple and commutes?”
pause for laughter
“An Abelian Grape”,
pause for more raucous laughter.
This is a classic maths joke but does not get a laugh outside of a maths class and doesn’t really get a laugh in one either. I used it to suggest that maybe mathematicians are not funny, but this is grossly unfair. You might not find the joke funny but that is because you do not know the context. For me, mathematics and comedy are intrinsically linked. If you do not know the context the joke is not funny, similarly, if you do not know the theorem the maths will not make sense. The truth is, Mathematics is a good joke. This connection might not seem obvious to you yet but let me try and convince you.
Growing up I loved two things: mathematics and comedy. I spent my secondary school years watching Star Trek: The Next Generation and The Simpsons on a loop. I did not know at the time but a good deal of the writers on the early (best) seasons of the Simpsons were maths graduates. There was even a book about the maths references written by Simon Singh called “The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets”. While I loved both, it seemed way more reasonable and attainable to become a mathematician and work for NASA to design a navigation system for the moon (which almost happened but that could be another blog) than become a comedian. So, I did an undergraduate in maths, where I met some of the funniest people I know. Mathematicians are obsessive, comedians are obsessive, one is a lonely pursuit done by neurotics and the other is studying maths.
This Theorem is a Joke
Some of the reasons why people enjoy maths are the same reasons why people enjoy comedy. In a theorem you have the statement and then the proof – in a joke there is the setup and the punchline. And just like an excellent joke, an excellent theorem starts normally with a simple setup but somewhere near the end it takes a turn that you do not anticipate and that is why you like it. An example of this is the rule of three in comedy, illustrated by the Dick Van Dyke Show joke “Can I get you anything? Cup of coffee? Doughnut? Toupee?”. The third was a surprise, the turn, the trick in the joke.
While funny, that is more numerology than maths.
Research Areas and Comedy Styles
There are deeper connections between comedy and maths. Different jokes and styles of comedy are like different research areas of mathematics; like Number Theory, String Theory, Applied Maths and Numerical Analysis.
Number theory is exactly what is sounds like, the theory of numbers, whereby people explore prime numbers and the relationship between numbers. Anyone with secondary school maths can understand the question but to get the answer you need amazing maths skills. This is like telling a simple joke everyone knows but with an unexpected turn. Most people can try these jokes, but they can rarely improve on the classics.
The most famous example of this in Number Theory is Fermat’s Last Theorem which in its simplest form it sounds a bit like the theorem of Pythagorus that we all know a2 + b2 = c2, Fermat said that this cannot be true for an + bn = cn for positive integers and n greater than 2. This simple statement took 300 years to solve and over 100 pages of high-end maths by Andrew Wiles in the 90s. This is both a good joke and theorem by Fermat. Once again, Simon Singh has written an excellent book and a documentary about this, called Fermat’s Last Theorem.
String Theory is a theoretical framework that describes space as strings in way more dimensions than we have, and when they cannot explain something, they add a dimension. To me, String Theorists are the avant-garde comedians of the mathematics world as I do not know if they are geniuses or playing us all for fools like Andy Kaufman in a long form joke.
Applied mathematicians use maths to understand the world around us. They are like the Kevin James’s of the comedy world. Pure Mathematicians frown upon the application and usefulness of applied maths. Like hardcore standup comedians might sneer at these popular comedians being too broad. Deep down both mathematicians and hardcore comics are as jealous of their popularity and their ability to apply the mathematics or make a room full of people laugh with a fart joke.
My PhD was in Numerical Analysis which is the mathematics of making a computer repeat something again and again until it finds a solution. The repetitions might be annoying, but the results are fascinating. This kind of repetition rule was used perfectly by The Simpsons’s writers in the episode “Cape Fear” in it Sideshow Bob stands on a multitude of rakes, the first time it is funny, the second time odd, the third time funny, the fourth, fifth and sixth less funny but the seventh time onwards is comedy gold.
It Is All About the Range
Another similarity is mathematicians and comedians have range. There are many examples of mathematicians who change research fields and have made big impacts. Comedians can turn their hands to serious acting roles and win awards. But on the negative side, for every Robin Williams, there is a Jerry Lewis, who tried his hand at a more serious role in “The Day the Clown Cried” and the film was so bad it was never released, and it is the stuff of legends.
Similarly, there are mathematicians who decide to stumble into a new field without giving it the appropriate respect and end up making fools of themselves.
In 2020 some mathematicians and physicists decided during the start of the COVID-19 outbreak that they could model disease better than an epidemiologist, without considering simple human interactions. They were tragically comically wrong to assume that students do not party.
Another negative link between maths and comedy is that some foolish people think women cannot do maths and women cannot do comedy. This is a ridiculous premise which can be easily undercut using a proof by counter example, but I will not even dignify it with that.
It Is How You Tell Them
Sadly, mathematics for a good deal of people is like a bad practical joke. Every day in maths classes around the country, there are some students who feel bewildered by the subject and how it is being taught to them. For those students, the idea of sitting and passing an exam in this subject might feel more like a bad practical joke. If you only watched MTV’s Punk’d your whole life, it is safe to say that you would not like or understand comedy – similarly if you are only exposed to maths for state exams you might not like or understand it.
There’s good comedy and there’s bad comedy and sometimes it is how you were told the joke.
So maybe your first experience with maths wasn’t a good one, but that doesn’t mean the next one can’t be.
“What’s purple and commutes?”