Anatomy of a dad joke: what has four wheels and flies

Attendant did not know what had “four wheels and flies” despite having heard that one first maybe forty years ago. The charm of that joke, I suppose, does not only consist in the double entendre of “fly” as a verb and non, but leans also on a stereotype of garbage — that garbage will have flies. One is first surprised by the pun and then one is hit by the stereotype. It would be interesting to investigate the relationships between stereotypes and humor, which obviously have a dark side. Why are stereotypes a component of humor?

I raised this issue with a customer who thought “archetype” was a more appropriate word than “stereotype.” The idea that trash has flies touches on a universal notion of trash we had, this customer argued. If there were clip-art, or an international symbol of garbage, that symbol would be sure to include flies.

This led to me thinking about the difference between an archetype and stereotype, the former seeming more to involve the essence of a thing, the latter to involve what one can expect of a thing, a predictable but superficial facet.

It didn’t seem right to say that the flies were somehow essential to garbage; on the other hand, the idea of decay and of rotten-ness did seem essential to garbage. And it would be hard to convey that idea of decay pictorially – as a picture, trash would be hard to distinguish from mere clutter – without including in your picture something like flies, or wriggly red strands meant to indicate odor. (I remained convinced that stereotype was what I’d meant.)

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