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Anatomy of a Tennessee Joke

As many of you may or may not know, I am a nearly world-famous scientist of words and phrases. There may be some fanciful term for what a scientist like myself is called, but I can assure you that I am much too busy in my lab to look up what that word is. Regardless, it should be noted that the English language is indeed an amazing creature, and its many words and letters — as you’ve no doubt noticed — can seem to endlessly be combined to create new and exciting syntax.

As an renowned authority on the expert chemistry between words, phrases, sentences, phrases and words, I have spent countless hours dissecting our language to discover its maximum impact. And when Matt mentioned that today was a “day of hating Tennessee,” or some such hoot of an event, I was thrilled — for it gave me a chance to drag out some samplings from a dissertation I presented to the Committee for Science at the famed Universite de Caen Basse-Normandie just last year.

There is no older joke than the stinging barbs which come from a heated rivalry. Take historically, for instance, the constant one-upmanship of Japan’s Higashikikuni Naruhiko and General Hideki Tojo during World War II. Deriding one’s adversary in a humorous fashion has long been a favorite pastime the world over, and under close scrutiny, one might realize that there’s a specific framework in play. The Tennessee Joke is no exemption to the rules, and a series of factors must be at play for such a joke to be triumphant, factors which we will examine as we look over the elements of success in this formula.

Phase I: Setting the Scene
During the setup of any great joke, Tennessee or not, a firm basis in the physical world must first be established. This gives the audience a familiar perspective as to where the joke is coming from. These may be specific:

-A Tennessee Fan is walking down the street.
-A Tennessee Fan is sitting on a bench.
-A Tennessee Fan is visiting his in-laws.

Or they may be more pointed:

-A Tennessee Fan is at the UK-UT game.
-A Tennessee Fan is shopping for new bullets.
-A Tennessee Fan is beating a raccoon with a stick in his backyard.

Phase II: The “Hook”
During this phase of the joke, after a sense of place has been established, a unique situation is presented. Normally, in the Tennessee Joke, a silly exchange between two fellow Volunteer supporters forms the crux of the interaction. Often scenes will be based in Heaven with St. Peter, take place inside a bar, or include other rival coaches (deemed smarter) to place the honus of idiocy squarely back upon the Tennesseean. Regardless of the opening action, it must be interesting enough to hold your audience:

-A Tennessee Fan comes across another Tennessee Fan who is looking through a hole in the fence and crying.
-Two Tennessee Fans are trying to build a ceiling fan out of tire fragments they found on the interstate.
-A Tennessee Fan’s angry wife is waiting as he returns from an evening of throwing rocks at people who look different.

Phase III: Repetition/Exaggeration
The use of repetition is an age-old must for a successful Tennessee joke, as long as the repetition grows gradually more outlandish. For instance, if a Tennessee Fan is having sex with a horse the first go-round, it will be much funnier if he is having sex with two horses the next go-round, two horses and a fish on the third go-round, etc. This repeated action will lead to the twist ending, which we’ll talk about in a moment. Exaggeration is also key:

Funny: Your Tennessee Fan has his pants on backward and only ten teeth.
Funnier: Your Tennessee Fan is wearing his pants on his head and tried to make himself some teeth out of Monopoly pieces.

Phase IV: The Punchline/Twist
The ideal Tennessee Joke will have a finale that surprises, coming out of nowhere with an exclamation or reveal that the audience finds so unbelievable that it has to laugh. This twist can be as simple as your Tennessee Fan finding his genitals caught in something which would seem fantastical or perhaps once again being rebuffed in a humorous way for his advances of physical love toward his wife. Regardless, your punchline/twist should, above all, seem wholly unbelievable, firmly based in fantasy.

Think of your equation like this:
[Scene](hook+action)/Repetition(Exaggeration)xTwist

Finally, in November 2008, after an exhaustive and researched study of this equation and each of its specific elements, Johns Hopkins University revealed, ultimately, the definitive Tennessee Joke. This joke is now widely believed by the scientific community to be the apex of the form, a proven standard by which future Tennessee Jokes will be held. That joke is below:

A Tennessee Fan looks out the hole in the side of his house that he uses for a window only to see his neighbor, another Tennessee Fan, drinking out of a jug marked XX and towing a car with no wheels into his front yard.

Two days later, he looks out the window to see his neighbor urinating in the street and having two dilapidated cars and an old refrigerator towed into his front yard.

The next day, he sees his neighbor marrying his daughter as ten burnt-out cars are towed into his yard.

The Tennessee Fan yells out of his hole, “What on earth are you doing?”

His neighbor responds, “I just finished reading ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens!”

Article written by C.M. Tomlin