No Soap, Radio: On the Pains and Virtues of Not Getting It

Reading Time: 6 minutes
elephants and hippos in the water
Photo by Andrew Napier via Creative Commons, cropped and speech-ballooned by me.

At some point in my childhood, a younger cousin, no older than four or five, first blurted out a joke: “An elephant and a hippo were taking a bath, and the elephant said, ‘No SOAP, radio!'” followed by hysterical laughter. It might have been passed off as the sort of nonsense “joke” kids tell at that age, were it not for everyone else’s reactions.

“Heh heh heh, wiseguy,” some adult said. Some other kids laughed. My same-aged cousin looked at me where I stood looking flummoxed and said, “Get it? No soap? Radio?”

“No,” I said. “What about the soap? Why is there no soap? Why did he call the hippo a radio?” Everyone else laughed harder, and the line made it into the family lexicon, so that someone just saying “No soap, radio,” with no context whatsoever became an excuse for snort-laughter.

Years later my aunt mentioned it in the context of nonsense jokes kids make up. “I was so confused,” I replied. “It never occurred to me that it was only funny because it made no sense!”

Then the other day, a cousin tweeted, “okay so it’s not just our weird family,” and linked to a Wikipedia post.

There, almost word for word, was the entire interaction from years ago.

This prank usually requires a teller and two listeners, one of whom is a confederate who already knows the joke and secretly plays along with the teller. The joke teller says something like, “The elephant and the hippopotamus were taking a bath. And the elephant said to the hippo, ‘Please pass the soap.’ The hippo replied, ‘No soap, radio.'” The confederate laughs at the punchline, while the second listener is left puzzled. In some cases, the second listener will pretend to understand the joke and laugh along with the others to avoid appearing foolish.

The purpose of the prank is to elicit one of two responses from the victim:
False understanding – when the victim acts as if the joke is humorous, when in fact the victim does not understand the joke at all.
Negative understanding – when the victim expresses confusion about what the joke means and feels left out (e.g., “I don’t get it”). The conspirators are now prepared to mock the victim for the victim’s “inability to get it”.
Sometimes, if the second listener does not respond right away, there is an “explanation” of the joke to the second listener, which involves the teller and the first listener emphasizing words or elongating pauses, but providing no further information, e.g. “Don’t you get it? No soooap… radio!”

Whaaaaat? So wait, what had happened all those decades ago? Had an adult put the little cousin up to it? Was my twin cousin in on it, too, or was she pretending? Who knew what, when? At what point did it stop being fake funny and become genuinely funny? I am consumed with thirty-year-delayed paranoia!

According to the sociological research linked to at the bottom of the Wikipedia article, it’s more common for people to laugh along without knowing what’s funny than it is to admit they don’t know what’s funny. I was indeed the only one there openly not getting it, but now I know I have no idea what was going through the minds of the rest of the family. It seems to me there’s far more than just two possible reactions. One or two people must have been in on it. Some of the adults may have been aware of the joke from some other context, and played along to humor the kids. Other adults may have been laughing just to humor the kid who had apparently told a senseless joke. Some kids may have genuinely found it funny, just because the words are fun to say, or like when you utter the word “underwear” in the presence of four-year-olds, or because it had been told with such conviction, or they were just in a silly, laughing mood.

Old lists of autistic symptoms would include “lack of a sense of humor,” which has fallen away mainly because it’s not true. Most of the people I know on the high-functioning end of the spectrum have very acute senses of humor, though they’re also apt to over-explain a joke after it’s been told. I wonder, looking at the no-soap-radio syndrome, if it’s only that their senses of humor don’t hinge on other people’s reactions. Sure, they might not get something everyone else thinks is funny. They know what’s funny, and whether or not other people find it funny makes no difference to them, I mean, us. The people who don’t laugh at the “no soap radio” joke. We are strong in our own beliefs! We don’t succumb to mob mentality!

Except I’ve exhibited the exact opposite behavior in my life, too. I remember waiting with my high school marching band to go on the field for a halftime show, giggling for no reason other than being happy. But a kid in the rank behind me heard and thought I was laughing at something he’d said. “She laughs,” he said loudly, pointing at me, “at everything I say. I could tell the dumbest joke in the world and she would laugh. See, watch. Why is the sky blue? Because God SAID so! HAH!”

Yes, there was nothing funny about any of those words. But his triumphant “HAH!” and conviction that he had some magic ability to make me laugh, combined with the patently unfunny statement put into a joke format, and my general good mood—I couldn’t stop myself. I doubled over chortling. He never let me live it down, either.

Frequently a brief, fleeting thought will make me giggle, and someone will want to know what’s so funny, and I’ll have completely forgotten. I’m afraid I’ve made more than one sensitive teenager paranoid that the librarian was laughing at them. I have a Resting Amused Face.

And yet I’m also notoriously immune to dirty jokes and mean humor. I can laugh at nothing at all easily enough, but the things that make people laugh simply because they’re “ooo how naughty!”—without any other sort of humor tied into it—leave me stonefaced. Years ago it may have been a case of “not getting it” content-wise as far as the dirty jokes are concerned, but now I just don’t get why it’s funny. Where’s the joy in being naughty, and even more so in being mean? To be honest, mean jokes are more likely to make me cry: I couldn’t even handle, in elementary school, when someone unseen would drop a lunch tray and the whole cafeteria would roar at them. But I can laugh during a game of Cards Against Humanity, because usually there’s an element of ridiculousness to the responses that elevate them from simply shock value (though there are moments there, too, when I just frown as others laugh).

And I do have a curiously morbid sense of humor, when it’s not mean. Death is terribly funny.

Honestly, there are so many reasons a person could laugh at a thing, it seems impossible to simplify into just “getting it” or “not.”

  • The unexpected
  • Plays on words
  • Connections you’d never made before but suddenly make so much sense
  • Things that seem to make no sense at all but actually do make sort of sense in a weird way (Alice in Wonderland, one of my Top-Whatever Favorite Books for this reason, is a good example)
  • Observations about life that you identify with, whether funny or not
  • Things that remind you of funny memories (for example, old family jokes that didn’t make sense the first time but have now become funny through repetition)
  • Things that make you happy
  • Things that make you nervous
  • Things that at the time made you miserable but now that time has gone by and you survived unscathed are suddenly hilarious (which then can further become inside jokes through repetition. Mention “banana popsicles” to my sister or cousins sometime).

I also have a bad habit of grinning stupidly while someone is berating me for a moment of carelessness. I can feel them thinking, “Why is she laughing? Why is she not taking this seriously?” But it’s not a matter of taking it seriously. It’s a matter of, “Yes, I know I messed that up, but there’s nothing to be done about it now so your anger is doing nothing but making me uncomfortable, so can’t we let bygones be bygones? See how friendly I am?” Except not in so many words, because it is, after all, a habit, and I’m not usually aware of the actual thoughts that come with it.

My daughter was born with comedic timing. She could make people laugh before she could speak in words, with facial expressions, tone of voice, and surprise—a genuine effort to instill laughter, mind you, not just laughing at the cute baby things the cute baby is doing (another cause of laughter: cuteness. Look at the popularity of baby animal videos!). Her dad has a bit of that, but not to the same extent (I suspect it does come from my genes: she fits in perfectly with the branch of the family responsible for the “No Soap Radio” thing), and her brother and I have no comedic timing whatsoever.  It takes us too long to put thoughts into words.

I do better, though, with a script (i.e., a book I’m reading aloud) and accompanying facial and vocal expressions, and better still with the written word.

When I’m not writing an article about humor. Because as soon as you start trying to dissect humor, it stops being funny.

But it doesn’t stop me from trying to dissect it. Someday, I will figure out why there wasn’t any soap.