I make the same bad joke, over and over. The pub trivia host announces the category will be Elements. I get mock-excited and announce “Oh boy! I love elephants!”.
This joke requires two assumptions to work: 1) That “elephants” and “elements” might be easily confused words, and 2) That I am smart enough not to actually confuse these words.
The first point is just language skills. Most English speakers will easily pick up on this.
The second point, though, requires you to make some assumptions about me. You either have to know I’m smart to know the difference between elements and elephants — and let’s face it, that’s not exactly a high bar — or you have to ASSUME I’m smart enough.
That second point, the assumption made about our relative intelligences? That’s where a lot of jokes fall through.
I won’t claim my friends LAUGH at my dumb jokes all the time. Cuz that would be a lie. But they do at least realize I’m joking. However, I’ve definitely made similar comments and had people correct me with a perfectly straight face.
This isn’t limited to misheard elephants. Most jokes could potentially be responded to in a pedantic way. You can respond to a statement by clarifying an omission, correcting a deliberate misinterpretation, or offer a thoughtful answer to a rhetorical question. You can refuse to engage with the basic premise of the joke. (“Knock, knock!” “What? Huh? The door’s way over there, but my hands are full. You’ll have to open it yourself.”)
Sometimes, deliberately refusing to get a joke IS ITSELF a joke. But just as often, it’s not deliberate - it’s an honest interpretation of the original statement as deadly serious and a little baffling.
When people do this, they’re assuming the teller is not smart enough to be making that statement as joke. It can seem a little rude!
But it’s also not done on purpose. It’s just a complete misread of the social cues that would make it obvious that this was said knowingly in jest. It’s part of the reason autistic people have trouble with some types of humor.
It also seems to be a prevalent male response to lady-jokesters. Which is depressing.
I’m not sure how to combat this beyond spreading my hands and saying “I keeeeed, I keeeed” after every lame pun. But friends! I will continue to fight this battle! I will soldier on in defense of jokes so bad they hurt. I’m COMMITTED.