The University of Chicago Application Essay for 2013-2014: The Joke’s on Whom?

Getting Started on Your Chicago Essays:  We Begin with the Joke Prompt

Before reading this post, you might want to look at my earlier  post with all of this year’s U of Chicago prompts–scroll down this linked post,  past the Penn essay, to view all of the Chicago prompts: Start Your Essays.

So you do not have to click back and forth between windows, here is Chicago’s joke prompt, which is the topic of this post:

Winston Churchill believed “a joke is a very serious thing.” From Off-Off Campus’s improvisations to the Shady Dealer humor magazine to the renowned Latke-Hamantash debate, we take humor very seriously here at The University of Chicago (and we have since 1959, when our alums helped found the renowned comedy theater The Second City).

Tell us your favorite joke and try to explain the joke without ruining it.

Inspired by Chelsea Fine, Class of 2016

Hmm.  It seems that  the joke is on the University of  Chicago when it comes to this prompt, for they have misattributed it.  While it is possible that Winston Churchill did, at some point, requote Charles Churchill, there is no record I can find of Winston actually saying this.  The original quote is from an obscure satirical poem of  the 18th Century, considerably before Winston’s time.  To see the details and the origin of the quote, go here:  Charles Churchill. 

It looks like a Wikipedia moment for Chicago, which likes to crowdsource prompts from their own students.  Ms. Fine didn’t do her homework and neither did the university.  Which inspires my own knock-knock joke:


Who’s there?


Otto who?

Otto know what yer talkin’ about.


Okay, dumb, but I do think it’s a good to know what you are talking about, so in that spirit, let’s look at humor a little more seriously.

Some Things to Think Consider

There are two basic ways to approach this prompt:

First, you can do what the prompt asks in a straightforward way by writing some sort of explanation and analysis of a joke.  This is the obvious response, but possible variations are many–a joke might be just a jumping off point to discussing  something the joke brings up or is based on–status, sex, values, ethnicity, all play a role in  jokes, and our expectations and our world view are almost always in play.  This is why so much humor is culturally specific while slapstick tends to cross cultures.

The second approach is, in effect, not to explain the joke–instead, you explain explaining.  Or the limitations of explaining.  Think of it as an exploration of the epistemology and ontology of humor.   I know this second option doesn’t necessarily directly address the topic,  but this is the University of Chicago; thinking outside the box is pretty much what they do (or what they think they do). If your essay is well done, they will not only welcome an unconventional response, your originality will give you a leg up on the competition.

Joke Taxonomy

Regardless of the  approach you take, you might want to start by considering how jokes appear as variations using similar parts, scenes or characters.  This is true of many folk literary forms, from fairy tales to epics, and the technical term for variations on shared situations or characters is a cycle–possibly the most famous cycle of all is in the Arthurian Romances, but the knock-knock joke is considered a joke cycle by American academics.   It’s useful to turn to an explanation of this, both as an example of how to explain a joke and to see how the explanation–the academic approach to explanation–can change a good joke into . . . something serious.  Go to the book at this link and start at page 69: joke cycles

So now you have the academic approach, in which jokes are taxonomized like plants and animals.    There is a lot you can learn from books like this, but while this is informative, because it is more about classifying and describing, it could be a bit dry  for a U Chicago application essay. Paradoxically, I think you need to avoid losing your sense of humor as you analyze your joke.  And do try to set the joke into a frame that provides a bigger picture.   Your focus may include a taxonomy of the joke, but then you’d want to turn toward looking either at what the joke’s humor says about us (or about those who find it funny) or at how the joke itself offers a criticism, social or otherwise.

You can also turn for some help to the pros, not in academia, but in comedy.  While most comedians do not like to explain individual jokes, many comedians will discuss the craft of telling jokes, and boning up on what they have to say can help you as you prepare to write a joke essay.

A good place to do some reading on the art of the joke is in a recent article on Jerry Seinfeld, (Pardon tbe interruption, but now a word from our sponsor:

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