A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

McLuhan’s Law of Jokes

Marshall McLuhan (September, 1967, age 56).  All jokes are based on grievances

I am indebted to funnyman Steve Allen for the observation that all jokes are based on grievances.  I ran that backward and got, where there are grievances there are jokes.  For example, English Canadians have a lot of grievances about bilingualism.  Here’s the joke: Cat is hunting a mouse.  Mouse hides in hole.  Cat sneaks up to hole and goes, “squeak.”  Mouse comes out.  Cat eats mouse.  Morale of the story?  I guess it pays to be bilingual. 

Michael Hinton (October, 2009, age 57).  The best jokes are based on grievances

In the 1970s Marshall McLuhan had a problem finding a good secretary after the retirement of Marg Stewart, who had worked for him for many years and knew his ways.  One of the temps irritated him a great deal by arguing with him about the observation that he borrowed from Steve Allen that all jokes are based on grievances.  She insisted on pointing out to him that there were jokes that were not based on grievances.  I don’t know what examples she presented him with but here’s one: “Why did the bicycle keep falling asleep?  Because it was too/two tired. 

It drove McLuhan crazy.  Not the jokes, he loved puns.  But because of course she was right, Allen’s law of jokes is wrong.  But that’s not important.  The real law, I will call it McLuhan’s law, is that the best jokes are based on grievances.  Best being jokes worth telling because they are funny and because the grievance on which they are based is worth examining.  Proof: Take any joke, j, not based on grievances.  Then, I assert based on my long study of the literature, that there must exist a joke, j’, based on grievances that is superior in seriousness and funniness. Q.E.D.

Here for example is a joke Marshall McLuhan told at a speech at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s.  The big Lufthansa jet was going down in the Mediterranean, a mile off shore.  The captain comes on the communication system to speak to the frightened crew and passengers:  “For those of you who can swim,” he says, “I say swim towards the setting sun for twenty minutes and you will reach safety.  For those of you who cannot swim, I say, Thank you for flying Lufthansa.”       

What grievance or grievances is the Lufthansa joke based on?  What message do you think McLuhan is sending to his audience in closing his speech with this joke?  What message do you think I’m sending in closing this blog with this joke?

Cordially, Marshall and Me



Reading for this post

McLuhan, Marshall.  Understanding Me: Lectures and interviews.  Edited by Stephanie McLuhan and David Staines. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2003, pp. 139-146.

Rare audio tape of McLuhan speaking at Johns Hopkins in the 1970s.  Posted by a reader in a comment to an earlier blog

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Michael Hinton Friday, October 16th, 2009
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Culture, Vol. 1 4 Comments

4 Comments to McLuhan’s Law of Jokes

  • Deborah Hinton says:


  • Will a dog paddle do ? 😉

  • michael says:


  • michael says:

    For you, Deborah, yes, but we can read each others minds

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