When my kids were young, I had to teach them that if you need to say, “Get it? Get it?” after telling a joke, it wasn’t funny.
If you need to say, “Get it?” after a joke, it also doesn’t belong in signage for the public. More specifically, when a message is intended for a general audience, if the audience needs to understand a joke or a pun to get the message, the joke or pun has to go.
That’s why I love this sign, from Fresh Pond Reservoir in Cambridge, MA.
I do know enough about comic books to know that there are different “universes,” though I don’t know which superhero goes with which universe. But whether a reader gets part of the joke or none of it, the sign still makes sense. Although “universe” might not be a writer’s first word choice for this message if not for the superhero joke, it’s still a reasonable choice. It communicates that no mater how different we are, we can all agree to cooperate in this way.
It’s always best if you can test out signage with a sample of your intended audience, but if you can’t, here are some questions to ask yourself:
- Is there a cultural reference a reader has to understand to get the joke?
- If so, do you need to understand the reference or the joke to get the message? (In the example above, there is a cultural reference, but you can get the message without knowing the reference.)
- Is it safe to assume the cultural reference is universally understood? (The answer to that is almost certainly, “No.”)
- Does the text make sense if I substitute a synonym, or nearest available synonym, for any of the key words in the intended humor? (For example, if you substitute “world” for “universe” in the above, the pun is gone but the message remains.)
- What happens to the humor and meaning if the text is translated into another language? (Try a few online translation tools.)
- Who are you including, and who are you excluding? Is the payoff from including the joke worth it?
“Humor,” says Beverley Serrell in Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach, “is often an indulgence for the writer’s benefit, not the reader’s.” If it has the potential to confuse, mislead, exclude, or obscure, we writers need to skip the self-indulgence for the sake of our readers.
What are your favorite, or least favorite, examples of humor in signage?