Bananas on Bananas, Hat on a Hat

There’s a comedy writing bit of trade-speak called, depending upon what room you work in “bananas on bananas” or a “hat on a hat”.  It’s a bad thing.  If you do it, you’ve made a mistake.  The idea is that sometimes a joke works but if you add something extra, you will make it worse less well.

It’s counter-intuitive. Hats are funny, why wouldn’t more hats be funnier?  Bananas are funnier, why wouldn’t an extra hat be funnier?

To see why, imagine a joke that works really well.  For example at the end of “Some Like it Hot” a character who has been pretending to be a woman (in order to escape the Mafia — he is a musician who witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago)  has been pursued by an older man who thinks he really is a woman.  Frustrated at trying to get the old guy to leave him alone he removes his wig and says more or less “I’m a man.”   The old man responds “Nobody’s perfect.”

It’s a funny joke. It would be less funny if the two of them or either of them was on a pogo stick, or slipping on a banana.

I think hat on a hat is an interesting phenomenon because in a certain sense humor is non cognitive.  You can’t exactly summarize the message of the joke “Nobody’s perfect”.  But on the other hand hat-on-a-hat demonstrates that jokes need to set up thoughts very precisely.  If they set up the wrong thoughts or too many, they don’t work.

I think attempts to convey mystical experience have a similar structure.  Take the Angel Silesius’s aphorism

“A rose blooms as it blooms without a why.”

It’s not so easy to summarize.  But if you add the wrong thing to it, you ruin it.

“A rose blooms as it blooms without a why like a door nobody walks through.”

I think “a rose is a door nobody walks through” is actually pretty good, but if you put the two mystical statements together — mine and Angel Silesius’s — you get a hash.  The mystical equivalent of bananas on bananas — rose on a rose.

Which is odd.  I thought mystical thoughts were ineffable.

Guess not!


5 thoughts on “Bananas on Bananas, Hat on a Hat

  1. Seems ‘hat on a hat’ is a bad name – the problem is that the pogo stick doesn’t thematically tie in with the ‘I’m a man’ joke. It’s not more of the same – it’s ‘apples on oranges’. If you had some kind of gender confusion romance jokes to add on, they thematically tie in. Maybe before the ‘I’m a man’ joke he’s stumbling in high heels and the love interest opines that he wishes he could give him his own boots, but they are merely the boots of a man and not worthy enough for ‘her’ feet. Ka-ching, theme.

  2. Tim Colohan says:

    Great point. Thank you.
    In my zen koan work with a teacher there are expressions used to tell the student they are being attached to a cognitive “view” or opinion, in an unclear way. Having/holding an opinion that blinds you to the reality you are immersed in.
    1) “Your putting on a hat when your already wearing one. ”
    2) “That’s like drawing legs on a picture of a snake.”
    3) “Your scratching your left foot when your right foot itches.”
    These originated in the 6th & 7th Century China I have been told.
    Koan work, like your humor is intuitive & meticulous & open.

  3. Simple and clear are usually best. The more words you use to express a thought, the less clearly you’re likely to express it. The same applies to jokes. The simpler you make a punch line or a gag, the faster people can recognize it minimal thinking, and the stronger their emotional reaction to it.

  4. Susan says:

    “The O’Reilly twins are drunk again”. Everyone I know got that punch line. It fits perfectly with the story of the joke AND is still totally surprises the listener. Simple simple. “He never had $10 before”. “He’s upstairs laying lineoleum’ We don’t even need to hear the joke anymore. My sister would call out the punch line and we’d convulse. (these were old jokes)

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