A Man Walks Into A Bar...


Many jokes begin with this line. It is called the "set-up", and is analogous to establishing-shots in films or first paragraphs in essays. First paragraphs in essays are where you state what you will be dealing with and usually give a thesis statement. The phrase "A man walks into a bar" performs a similar function, alerting the audience that what follows is likely to be a short story with a humourous climax.

FACT:There is no thesis statement in a "Man walks into a bar" joke.

What is the attraction to this structure of humour? Why are there so many jokes about men walking into bars? There are even jokes about this form of joke (see section 2), which act as a manner of meta-joke on the collected text of the genre. Part of the attraction to this structure may be its possibilities: most anything can happen in a bar, especially if this bar is contained within the wild and woolly world of the verbal jest. There are many kinds of bars: seedy bars, jazz bars, lesbian bars, physical bars (section 2), &c. This may be part of the attraction as well.

Here are some examples of "A Man Walks Into A Bar..."-style jokes. Each will cover a popular sub-genre of the form. Notice the conversational style of the prose, another hallmark of the structure.

Example 1: (standard example)
A man walks into a bar with a small dog under his arm and sits down at the counter, placing the dog on the stool next to him. The bartender says, "Sorry, pal. No dogs allowed."
The man says, "But this is a special dog -- he talks!"
"Yeah, right," says the bartender. "Now get out of here before I throw you out."
"No, wait," says the man. "I'll prove it." He turns to the dog and asks, "What do you normally find on top of a house?"
"Roof!" says the dog, wagging his tail.
"Listen, pal..." says the bartender.
"Wait," says the man, "I'll ask another question." He turns to the dog again and asks, "What's the opposite of soft?"
"Ruff!" exclaims the dog.
"Quit wasting my time and get out of here," says the bartender.
"One more chance," pleads the man. Turning to the dog again, he asks, "Who was the greatest baseball player that ever lived?"
"Ruth!" barked the dog.
"Okay, that's it!" says the bartender, and physically throws both man and dog out the door and onto the street.
Turning to the man, the dogs shrugs and says, "Maybe I should have said Joe Dimaggio?"

Example 2: (variation: duck in place of man)
There was this duck, who walked into a bar. And he says to the bartender "Got any grapes?" The bartender says "No, I don't have any grapes." The duck walks out, sorely disappointed.

So the next day, he walks back into the bar, asks the same question, gets the same answer.

The day after, he walks back into the bar, and again, asks the bartender, "Do you have any grapes?" The bartender, having still not figured out why this duck seems to think he may have some grapes, says to the duck, "No, and if you come back in here tomorrow and ask me if I have any grapes, I will nail your bill to the bar!"

The duck frowns, turns around, and walks out of the bar.

So the next day, the duck walks back into the bar, and asks the bartender "Got any nails?"

The bartender says "No."

So the duck says "Got any grapes?"

Example 3: (warning: sexy content!)
A man walks into a bar and sees, standing next to the bartender, this giant gorilla. So the man, he sits at the bar, orders a drink, and says, "What's with the gorilla?" The bartender says, "Watch." Then he begins to start, like, hitting the gorilla. And the gorilla, he bends over and gives the bartender a blow job! When they're finished the bartender turns to the man and says, "Wanna try?"
"Sure!" says the man, "Just don't hit me so hard!".

Did you understand the jokes? Here is a "crib sheet":

The first example relies on the fact that the man and his dog have been established as frauds. We believe that the dog cannot actually "speak", rather, he is simply barking and those barks are being interpreted by the man as language (English). When it is revealed that the dog is fully cognizant and can actually articulate himself, we are expected to laugh at the thwarting of our expectations.

In the second example, the humour is more complicated. We initially expect the duck, when he asks for the nails, to have discovered a loop-hole in the bartender's warning a paragraph earlier. Only when the duck then asks for grapes do we realize the full extent to which he has manipulated the bartender! He has safely managed to request grapes, but situated himself so he can avoid the bartender's wrath - for how can his bill be nailed to the bar if the bartender doesn't have any nails? The bartender has unwittingly provided the duck the very weapon with which he (the bartender) can be defeated. People are encouraged to show their appreciation of the duck's cunning through laughter, directed at the foolish bartender.

The third, sexy, example again relies on we, as members of the audience, having our expectations thwarted. We, as intended, believe the bartender is offering the services of the gorilla to the man - not offering to have the man perform oral sex on him. This understanding is encouraged through the manner in which the bartender treats the gorilla. The cue for the gorilla to "go down" on the bartender is physical violence: obviously, the bartender does not value the gorilla as a person. He is situated as subservient to the bartender, while the man is situated as an equal, but voyeuristic, partner. This voyeurism also helps position the audience: the man is in the same position that we, as listeners or readers of the joke, are: watching events unfold. As we unconsciously identify with the man (for who else is there to identify with? the Beast? the animal-fetishizing and abusive bartender? the man acts as the Everyman in this form of humour), we begin to also associate the man with us: passive readers of the Text, unable to affect its outcome. Thus, when the man is questioned, we assume the gorilla is being offered - because, otherwise, we would have to break down the "fourth wall" and allow the man to become an active agent in the narrative. It is in this activism on the part of the man, the offer of oral sex to the bartender, that the humour lies.

Section 2
"A man walks into a bar... ouch!"

Please explain why people consider this 'humorous'
  - Amanda S, via e-mail, March 29 2002

Amanda, this is a variation on the structure of the Man/Bar paradigm. It, like the "Why Did The Chicken Cross The Road?" joke, relies on context for humour. Unlike the Chicken, the Man has not become so decontextualized as to make reconstructing the original context as big a chore as it could be otherwise.

The humour in this joke relies on the many sorts of bars in our world. The joke assumes some sophistication on the part of the audience, an expectation gleamed from previous jokes that the bar is a drinking establishment.1 When the "ouch" comes, we are startled. How could entering a bar hurt? No answer immediately springs to mind, so we are forced to re-evaluate our assumptions. When we ask ourselves, "What if the bar was an bar proper, and by walking into it the man actually, physically, walked into it?" and are forced to answer back, "That seems to be the only plausible explanation" we must realize that this is the intent of the speaker. This is the humour in the joke, Amanda: a confusion of the listener coupled with slap-stick violence. Admittedly, not a very potent combination, and, I believe, not a full exploitation of the potential of the form.

Back to the list of Jokes Explained

1This expectation of sophistication on the part of the audience is not limited to the arena of humour. The development of such expectations can be readily traced in the novel. Consider the introduction of a very early novel, Daniel Defoe’s famous "Robinson Crusoe"1-1, published in 1719, which expends a full chapter explaining the origin and back-story to the hero: information which is not referred to in any meaningful way again in the novel. Later novels expected the audience to be able to accept the adventures of a protagonist without needing a full knowledge of his origins and breeding.
   1-1The full title of the book is "The Life and strange and surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe", again, implying a lack of sophistication expected in the audience. Notice the distinction here: I am not saying that Defoe believed his audience was unsophisticated; rather, as the novel was a new art form at the time, his audience didn't have the past experience (sophistication) to be able to enter into the novel with having their "hand held", so to speak, initially.