Are Math Jokes Taboo?

A lot of people hate math. People hate math so much that our word for “complete and utter destruction” is “aftermath.” That’s pretty bad. Like, what’s left after a bomb – we compare that…to multiplication tables.

That’s a joke I wrote that pretty much sums up how 50% of people feel about mathematics: it’s the absolute worst thing in the world. Physical torture cannot compare to the mundaneness of arithmetic nor the frustration of solving a system of equations. And yet, there are some crazy, weird people who actually like math.

What?! Who?! Well, I’m one of them! And so is San Francisco/Los Angeles based comedian Sammy Obeid. And if you’re a comedian who likes math, sometimes that can work against you.

Seriously? …Yeah! Last Thursday, Obeid posted the following video (which received over 7,300 views in 24 hours) on his personal Facebook account, saying,

“As a math major turned comedian, the struggle I face is convincing TV networks that math jokes, on average, will work. I recently got to test this theory on Playboy TV.”

In case you didn’t catch it, that’s kind of a math joke too: “…on average.” As if the only thing keeping network executives from putting his material on TV is their understanding of a mathematical average. He explains it like this:

Half of us are good at math. There’s math people…there’s language people. You’re good at one or the other. So half the world is gonna dig math jokes.

Obviously, it’s a really mathematical argument for his case, which I find pretty ironic and Obeid probably does too. He’s basically going, “Okay people who don’t like math jokes…let me explain to you why math jokes work…by using math.”

I do think that television networks have a point, though. Everyone can agree that math is a polarizing subject, and ideally you want a television show that is going to appeal to as many people as possible. Math jokes are weird! I’ve experienced that weirdness in my own stand up. In fact, I’m convinced the only reason why that aftermath joke works so well is because it’s about hating math. It’s a math joke that doesn’t require any math knowledge; it only requires you to realize, “Yeah, a lot of people really do hate math!” I even start off the joke by going “You guys hate math?” Which always gets a huge cheer from the audience

I’ve also told other math jokes that do require some mathematical understanding. And those haven’t always haven’t gone as well. A joke I wrote recently was super uncomfortable for me to tell because when I tried it at open mics I’d get totally different reactions from set to set:

It’s no wonder Americans aren’t very good at math. Just take geometry, for example: the most famous square in America, Times Square, is a triangle.

The first time I told it, it killed. And then I’d get nothing. And then it would do okay. Then I threw it up on Twitter and it did better than most of my Twitter jokes. But I’d get up on stage and people would be like “…what? I don’t understand.” I got so sick of the joke roller coaster I was on that I eventually stopped riding it. And stopped telling the joke altogether. (WHAT AN ANALOGY!)

I also tell a joke about how I was a math minor in college. Or at least I thought I was going to be…and then a few weeks before I graduated I realized that I had added up the units that I needed wrong. I added wrong. Probably didn’t deserve that degree.

That joke does pretty well, but it takes a lot more effort to get people to understand why it’s funny. And it’s because I’m emphasizing a mathematical function as the punchline, rather than the idea “wow, math sucks!” I have to spell it out for people: I added wrong. And I was supposed to be a math minor. That’s irony, people!

So yeah, math jokes can kind of go either way. But, I think it’s also kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy on the part of the audience member. If you decide beforehand that math jokes aren’t funny, then you’re never going to hear a math joke and laugh. That’s just how your brain works. Everybody has an opinion on what is funny and what isn’t, but comedians and television executives work with humor everyday. If anyone thinks they know what is funny and what isn’t – it’s them. But the unfortunate thing is that “knowing” what’s funny actually makes them closed-minded. So, when someone like Obeid comes along with proof that certain math jokes will work, they still won’t listen. Even though he has a fantastic, smart, refreshing approach to comedy, the networks will say “it’s too controversial.”

But it isn’t! Comedian co-host of Playboy TV Dan Cummins points out, the “math demographic” is a huge demographic. If you can get the 50% of the population who likes math to buy into your show, that’s unbelievably good numbers. If I could get 50% of people to buy into my blog (or even this article) I’d be over the moon! (I’m just realizing that’s a really odd way of saying “happy”)

In the Playboy TV video, Obeid tells some of his math jokes to the delight of the hosts, one of whom outwardly admits that she isn’t a math person. He shows that you don’t even have to like math to be in on the joke or to think it’s funny. You just have to give it a chance.

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 1.38.44 PM
Sammy Obeid on Last Comic Standing

“Giving it a chance” is really hard to do in the entertainment industry, though. Networks have tons of people working for them, going over the content of every show, giving “notes” to the writers of things to change to make the show “better” (which often just means “less controversial”).

Controversial seems like a funny way to describe math, but that’s really what it is. And with anything controversial, people are afraid of the risk. It’s better to avoid the topic completely. On last season of Last Comic Standing, I remember the judges Keenen Ivory Wayans, Roseanne Barr, and Norm Macdonald liking Obeid’s set in the first round of the competition. But they also told him to cut the cutesy jokes. Get rid of the nerdy stuff and tell something real, they said. Obeid ended up making it through a couple more rounds on the show, but apparently enough was enough.

As host of last season’s Last Comic Standing Anthony Jeselnik says, doing well on the show has nothing to do with how good of a comic you are. On The Todd Barry Podcast, Jeselnik says that before the competition, he went into the room with all the comedians and said something like, “Try your best, but it really doesn’t matter. I’m the best comic in here and I wouldn’t have had a shot in hell of making it past the first round on this show.” It’s all about what the producers want. (Jeselnik is a notoriously non-P.C. comic)

I’m not trying to say that Obeid should have won the competition or anything, but I am saying that marking him down on having smart jokes is pretty not cool. Especially since the audience that was there listening to him perform laughed at all those jokes, even if the judges didn’t. People can say math isn’t funny all they want, but laughs are indisputable. Obeid has some of the smartest writing I’ve seen. Just check out his killer Conan set:

I can totally sympathize with Obeid’s frustration. He’s a comic. He tells math jokes. They work. If there’s anyone who should know whether math jokes work or not, it’s him. Not these network executives. I’d even guess that TV would be a better outlet for his math humor than stand up because it’s so easily accessible to people. When you’re telling stand up to an audience, the people are pretty much stuck there. And chances are they haven’t even heard of you before. In a way, telling those people a math joke is way more of a risk than creating a TV show, where people could easily change the channel if they don’t like it. People can’t really walk out of a comedy show (or they usually don’t).

And, the flip side is that people who really do like it will REALLY like it, and the show will attract more of those people. Where’s the risk in embracing math jokes? They don’t hurt anyone. I mean, can you imagine someone storming out of a comedy show because they heard one too many math jokes? That’s hilarious! Math really shouldn’t be controversial, but it seems to be. At least based on what Obeid says.

Math jokes or “nerd humor” is one of those genres of comedy where there’s a strong stereotype against it being groan-worthy. Just because they’ve been done before doesn’t mean that math jokes can’t be good. It reminds me a lot of how people can have very polarized reactions to puns. You sneak a pun into a conversation and half the people in the room will chuckle and the other half will want to slit your throat. With math jokes or puns it’s the same: if a joke is good, it’s good. You shouldn’t dislike a joke just because it has the word “math” in it. The foundation of one of the most successful comedies of all time, The Big Bang Theory, is nerd jokes. And yet it’s still hard to convince television executives that nerdy can be funny.

Is the math joke “struggle” that Obeid faces really all that significant on its own? Not particularly. I mean, if math jokes were banished from the face of the earth I think we’d all survive. However, it is an example of how having stereotypical attitudes about certain genres in the comedy industry can be hurtful to comedy as a whole. I think there is a taboo surrounding math jokes in comedy. That sounds funny for me to say, but it’s totally there! People will judge you for doing 5 minutes on math jokes the same way they’d judge you if you told 20 knock knock jokes or rattled off pun after pun after pun. There’s a lot of taboos that really shouldn’t mean anything at all.

If Obeid thinks he can create a fresh and funny show, then why not let him? He knows how to make math funny and he deserves the chance to make something good for TV. Some people either don’t understand math jokes or they just don’t like math at all. But, I also know a bunch of people who would love nothing more than to see a funny show just about math. Hopefully, the idea that “math jokes are awful” won’t stop Obeid from getting this show out there.


Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 2.30.44 PMP.S. – Dan Cummins, the guy who is talking to Obeid in the first video, is one of my favorite comics of all time. He’s not super well-known but he’s had a huge influence on me. I saw him once at the San Francisco Punchline and I almost died. He was very funny. His special Crazy With a Capital F used to be on Netflix and now it isn’t, but it’s awesome and you should find it on iTunes. You can also find it on YouTube.

P.P.S. – Obeid is known for his record of 1,000 nights of comedy in a row. It’s a really cool thing. Read about it here.

P.P.P.S. – If you like math jokes, here are some more! And if you REALLY like math this Sampling of Mathematical Folklore is made for you.

3 thoughts on “Are Math Jokes Taboo?

  1. people hate mathematicians, because if you’re on a beach with a small slate, doing math, as all mathematicians do, more women come around to see what you are doing than the ones checking out the muscle men. Or what do you think was the attraction between Marilyn Monroe and Einstein?
    ps. If a mathematician is standing outside of what he can see is an empty room, and two people come out, what does he think? If two more go in, the room will be empty again.

    Liked by 3 people

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