I found this quote by George Bernard Shaw:

When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth.

Can anyone please explain the meaning of this sentence?

  • 3
    "When a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth" means just that, "when a thing is funny, search it carefully for a hidden truth". Word for word. All of them to be found in any number of dictionaries. Now, you might not agree with the idea expressed, and in fact it doesn't have to be true, but that is out of scope of this site.
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 9:15
  • @RegDwightАΑA: Thanks for your answer, but some users think differently. Don't you agree? I've posted this question because I need to understand the meaning of whole sentence, not only "word for word".
    – stexcec
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 9:31
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    @stexcec: I think your question may have fared better had you elaborated more on why you were confused. "Can anyone please explain what this means" questions, with little additional information about where the confusion rests, often get closed here. At least do a little research, and put forth a conjucture – questions formatted in that way tend to be appreciated rather than downvoted. Next time, try adding a short paragraph that begins with, "I'm confused because..." and includes "when I looked up..." Learn from the master.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 9:58
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    @stexcec I think you miss my point. In this case, the meaning of the whole sentence is its meaning word for word. The sum of its parts is completely equivalent to the sum of its parts. No hidden tweaks, everything completely straightforward. It's not an idiom, just a different way of saying "there's a grain of truth in every joke".
    – RegDwigнt
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 10:14
  • @RegDwightАΑA: many thanks, I posted this question because I was interested in the meaning of the entire sentence. Maybe this is the wrong place to ask a similar question.
    – stexcec
    Commented Aug 23, 2012 at 10:19

4 Answers 4


It's difficult to tell without proper context, but here are my thoughts:

Things that appear on the outside might not be the same on the inside. Or a funny thing could be fake or false if you don't find the real reason behind it; there might be a trick in a funny thing, so search it carefully before you believe in it.

  • Hello Noah...apparently this is one of your first answers going back 10 years...we usually use block for actual quotes, and not personal POV. Are you quoting yourself? Commented Jun 3, 2022 at 18:06

Why is something funny to someone? That's never been satisfactorily explained to fit all situations (though some attempts have been made), but for many people, they find something funny because at some level, probably more likely an unconscious one than a conscious one, it strikes a (dis-)chord with them. So if they think about why they found it funny, they're bound to discover some "hidden" truth about themselves in terms of how they think about the thing that was funny.

Having said that, like a fairground psychic, someone clever can pretty much always derive a "hidden truth" from a situation, so I'd take the saying with a grain of salt.


Your question doesn't do a very good job of explaining why you are confused, but I'm going to venture a guess that your confusion is centered around the phrase thing is funny, because that could be interpreted in a few different ways.

When first hearing the word funny, we often think of something amusing, i.e., something that would cause us to laugh. Thus, Shaw's quote could mean, Look for a hidden truth in every good joke.

But funny can also mean odd, strange, or curious (as in, something smells funny around here – which could allude to an odd odor, or it could even be figurative, meaning something doesn't seem right about this situation.) In that case, the quote could be interpreted as, When something doesn't seem quite right, look for a hidden truth. Or even, When something doesn't seem like it could be true, look harder, because, if it really has happened, there must be a cause.

The first interpretation could explain why we sometimes laugh so hard at a comedian who tells us about something rather ordinary1. The second interpretation could be leveraged by a detective who is listening to the testimony of a dubious suspect, and the third could be regarded as sound advice by a scientist who is poring over experimental data, on the verge of a breakthrough finding.

Shaw doesn't help us much by using the word thing. He might have said times or circumstances or crime scenes or puns, and given us a clue as to how he was using the word funny. Then again, maybe he liked the way his maxim was so flexible, so he decided to leave it as is, and let the reader figure it out. Shaw was kind of funny like that.

1George Carlin was especially adept at this. One of my favorites: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”


In Shakespearean works, the jester is often the only one who is allowed to get away with telling difficult but true things to the king. The reason the jester can get away with this is because it's done under the pretext of humour, and it's difficult to take offence to humour. Comedy and humour are often based on real life and are an alternative, friendlier way to present the truth.

Given that example, I interpret the quote to mean that when you see or hear something funny, be aware that there may very well be an insightful, intelligent lesson to be learned.

In today's context the quote can also be applied to satirical shows such as Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. The show often derives its comedy based on real life events and has "hidden truths" in it.

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