It’s All About Context

I’m about to tell you one of my favorite jokes. The very first time I heard this I thought it was the greatest piece of humor that had ever been conceived.

There are 10 types of people in the world, those who know binary, those who don’t, and those who weren’t expecting a ternary joke.”

If you’re like, I would guess, ninety-nine percent of the people on the planet, you’re probably scratching your head now and saying, “Uhhhh . . . I don’t get it.” And that’s fine. Because not getting it is the entire point of today’s post.

As everybody knows, the best jokes are the ones you have to explain. So let’s look at the three things happening here:

Thing One

You very likely said “ten” when you saw the digits “10” in the opening line. However, the numbers 1 and 0 together like that only mean “ten” in the context of a base ten numbering system. In a base 12 system (remember “Hey Little Twelve Toes?“) “10” means twelve. In base 16, “10” means sixteen. Hold that thought.

Thing Two

There’s an old nerd joke, “There are 10 types of people in the world: those that know binary and those that don’t.” We nerds love this joke because we know that in binary (the ever-popular language of computers), the number “10” means two. For an example, I refer you to this post’s featured image, taken from the wonderful Binary Hand Dance video by the brilliant and entertaining Vi Hart.

Therefore, the old joke reads: “There are two types of people in the world: those that know binary and those that don’t.” Ha ha ha. Nerds.

Thing Three

In a base 3 counting system, “10” would then represent the number three, and that’s where this gets funny. Since we nerds have laughed at the binary joke for so long, it’s actually become a terrible cliche. Which is why I was completely caught off guard by the above-quoted joke. Whereas I was expecting the tired old, “There are 10 (i.e., two) types of people…” I instead got:

There are 10 types of people in the world, those who know binary, those who don’t, and those who weren’t expecting a ternary joke.”

If I Haven’t Lost You Yet . . .

So as I mentioned a few weeks ago, I’m still trying to finish up this Cancer Book thing. I’ve been frantically working on it now for a while, sometimes for upwards of ten minutes each week. And although the topic is my Adventures with Cancer, it is, first and foremost, a Charlie book. It’s supposed to be funny and it’s supposed to entertain. The whole cancer thing is just fodder for material.

Let me highlight something in that last paragraph: “supposed to be funny.” One of the primary difficulties that any member of the humor industrial complex faces is the question: is this funny? Because as I’ve illustrated above, humor is absolutely all about context. No context. No funny. End of story.

When Dick van Dyke tripped over the ottoman, the audience had hundreds of contextual clues and the audience laughed. Without those clues, one might jump up in alarm and scream, “Is he okay?!”

When Dick van Dyke pretended to trip over the ottoman in later seasons, the audience had the context of the previous joke. Without that, his little sidestep had no meaning.

And if you’ve never seen two episodes of the Dick van Dyke show, then this illustration itself is completely meaningless.

So you can see the challenge.

As I write something I think might be funny, there’s always that nagging doubt: is it just me? Is this a “you had to be there” moment? I’m I telling ternary jokes? It’s really tough, because you only get one shot at it. I can’t publish the book, have a thousand people read it, gather feedback, and then do it all over again. That only worked for The Martian and is unlikely to be reproduced by me.

So when (and if) I ever get this done, I hope it works. But if for some reason it doesn’t, don’t worry. I’m sure there will be a series of blog posts explaining each piece of humor in laborious detail. Then we’ll all have a laugh, that’s for sure.

2 Comments for “It’s All About Context”


I am sure it will be funny Charlie – you have a great sense of humor! I worked for a young associate who in a conversation had no idea who Carol Burnette was – I felt old instantly 😂


Charlie, I enjoy reading and laughing with you on your blog though sometimes I don’t always get it the first time around but let it sink in a bit and I do. Your book will be awesome. I can’t wait to read it.

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