There are some intelligent jokes also explaining (in a very extreme way) how mathamticas works, for exameple

A mathematician and a physicist are sitting in the teachers lounge. Suddenly the furniture catches fire. The physicist is able to handle to situation. Both shocked, the physicist makes some coffee for both of them. The next day, the mathematician has the desire for some coffee and sets the furniture on fire, thus reduced the problem the previously solved one.

I often tell such a joke when it comes to a situation when either you reduce a problem to a big theorem or a previously solved one or if you want to motivate to do something directly without the use of a big machinery. Most of the students are normally stunned or look very confused, but some of them are very impressed since the know how the things work.

Is it a good thing to tell such jokes? Or are you even doing bad since this is confusing and anti-motivating ("Oh, those weird mathematicians. I don't want to get to that point!")?

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    $\begingroup$ Some other jokes (also really bad ones) can be found in ams.org/notices/200501/fea-dundes.pdf. The one above is a modification of the one on page 30 there. $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2014 at 9:09
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    $\begingroup$ Jokes are a great thing, but are notoriously hard to get right: I witnessed several times how students would at first laugh and then later comment "what a kindergarten" among themselves. $\endgroup$
    – dtldarek
    Mar 20, 2014 at 11:12
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    $\begingroup$ I really loved the following in my first abstract algebra course: "Is this the inverse of a? We will use rat poison principle. How do you know if something is rat poison? You feed it to a rat." $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2014 at 12:00
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    $\begingroup$ I think there's something to be said for doing what comes naturally. If you are excited to tell a joke, go for it. People will enjoy your excitement, if not the joke. $\endgroup$ Mar 20, 2014 at 16:54
  • $\begingroup$ Apparently, there's also a stand-up mathematician, Matt Parker. See this MSE question, for instance: math.stackexchange.com/questions/970205/…. $\endgroup$
    – J W
    Oct 12, 2014 at 14:31

5 Answers 5


I find jokes are useful for helping students to remember things. For example, the joke that Steve Gubkin tells in the comments will help the students remember how to check that $b$ is the inverse of $a$. I am sure if you pick your fact then there is a joke for it. My favorite remembering-joke is the following.

Lecturer: What is $\int\frac1{\text{cabin}}d\text{cabin}?$

Students: It is a log cabin. Ha ha.

Lecturer: No. It is a holiday home. Log cabin plus c...

Students: Groan.

And yet, they will want to tell someone this horrible joke which their their lecturer told them. In order to tell the joke they have to remember how to integrate $1/x$. As an added bonus, they might even remember to write $+c$ in their exam...

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    $\begingroup$ To be frank, I don't get it. How is log cabin + c holiday home? $\endgroup$
    – user37
    Mar 22, 2014 at 2:01
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    $\begingroup$ One holidays by the sea... $\endgroup$
    – user1729
    Mar 22, 2014 at 9:49
  • $\begingroup$ Wow, why do you say it's "horrible"? I liked it... $\endgroup$
    – mbork
    Apr 9, 2014 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ @mbork it's "horrible" because it's a groan-worthy pun. Real "groaners" can be quite good, but it's common to call all of them "horrible", often hyperbolically $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    Aug 31, 2023 at 2:09

I once asked Ted Slaman, after one of his (typically) excellent colloquium talks, what is the secret to giving such a great talk, and his advice to me was: you've got to think like a comedian. What he meant, of course, is not that one is supposed to tell jokes, but rather, that one should explain mathematical ideas with an appreciation for timing and the arc of the story line. You've got to set the stage for your mathematical point, so that the audience (or students) attain the Aha! moment right as your explanation reaches its crescendo, just as a comedian sets up and then delivers the punchline.

Three logicians walk into a bar, and the bartender asks, "do all three of you want a drink?" The first one says, "I don't know..."; the second one says, "I don't know..."; and then the third one says, "Yes!".


I think one important distinction is: Is the joke about mathematics or about mathematicians? An example of the former is the "rat poison principle" from Steve Gubkin's comment or any other "funny name" for a mathematical principle/trick or whatever. An example of the latter is the one from the OP.

Of course the separation is not really strict as every joke a mathematician tells about mathematics also tells something about mathematicians ("these guys have weird jokes…") and also jokes about mathematicians often highlight important principles (as the one from the OP).

But my point is: Jokes that are explicitly about mathematicians may lead to the "Those weird mathematicians…"-effect. Jokes that help to memorize mathematical principles and do not carry to much implicit meaning about mathematical may be less harmful…

But anyway, if a joke is harmful or not very much depends on the image the students have of their instructor. If they already think that he's a math-weirdo, jokes probably won't help.


Prof. Frank Carroll at Ohio State had a routine like this in elementary undergraduate lectures. At the beginning of class, he would write at the side of the chalkboard* a list of topics for the lecture. Sometimes he would put "Joke" in the list. Then the students were all waiting for the joke. Supposedly they would be more likely to pay attention, in case they missed the joke.

*Some old guys here may remember chalkboards.


If you're good at telling jokes, you might as well tell some mathematical ones in class: it will keep the students engaged.

If you're not good at telling jokes -- and the process of becoming a math teacher selects for quite a different set of skills -- then there's no point.

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    $\begingroup$ Or embrace your terrible joke telling ability and act as if the joke you just told was the most hysterical thing you've ever heard. This will work for all jokes, but puns or "dad jokes" are the best. $\endgroup$
    – David G
    Mar 21, 2014 at 0:57
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    $\begingroup$ In most classes I teach, in one of the first lectures I make a bad joke that gets almost no response. I then tell the students that they should laugh at my jokes even when they're not funny, since I'm the one who assigns their grades and they want to keep me happy. That does get a laugh, and helps establish the kind of informal atmosphere I prefer when I'm teaching. $\endgroup$ Mar 23, 2014 at 9:05

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