Fourth Degree Jokes

Ecclesiastes is the book of the Holy Bible most frequently quoted in popular culture and used as the source for titles of books and movies. Its verses are an absolute treasure trove of beautifully written, insightful, and pithy statements. “The Sun Also Rises,” and “The House of Mirth” are two that stand out. But when it comes to funny, the movie “This Is Spinal Tap” is the treasure trove to seek. And that’s where we find a perfectly naughty version of a fourth degree joke.

Fourth degree jokes are meant to improve one’s situation but, accidentally, make them worse. In the movie “This is Spinal Tap,” the bassist Derek Smalls (played by Harry Shearer) boards a plane during their tour and is stopped when the metal detector is triggered. It turns out that Derek had wrapped a cucumber in tin foil and stuffed that down his jeans in order to appear more well-endowed. He is made to remove it and place it on the tray at security, and then hurries along.

That scene also embodies other comedic principles. As Steve Kaplan explains, he is pursuing the principle of winning and positive action as he embodies what Steve calls “the moke”, the guy who does not possess the necessary tools to achieve his goals, and yet is unaware of his failings.

John Cleese (of Monty Python fame) described humor as watching someone watch someone else struggle and fail. If all that scene showed was Derek planting the cucumber, and then later on explaining what had happened, we would have been sympathetic with him, and not necessarily laughed at his plight. By showing instead his companions, we sympathize with them, and can join them in laughing at Derek, just as we might laugh when we see someone slip on a banana peel.

If the cucumber in the pants trick had failed for us, it would be a tragedy. But, because it happened to Derek, it’s comedy.