The leadership of my high school in the early 70s was, I presume, pretty typical for a suburban Melbourne school. It was not unkind, but it was authoritative and distant. Except for one guy, a deputy principal or something, who was a complete asshole. This one guy was always angry, always yelling at some kid for something, and forever stomping down the hallways. He also always held his head at a weird and pronounced tilt. And so, the students’ name for this asshole was 43 Degrees.
Thankfully, 43 Degrees left a couple years after I arrived, but his memory lived on. A few years after he’d left, I remember some kids talking about him. Except, they referred to him as 45 Degrees, which was wrong, for two reasons. Not only was it not the asshole’s name, it was also a worse name: “43 Degrees” was funny, and “45 Degrees” was not.
This came back to me recently, when I was visiting my brother Jeff in ICU. Jeff brought up The Beast With a Million Eyes, a schlock sci-fi movie that we had watched long, long ago. The “beast” in question turned out to be a hilariously small box-wire contraption, and so the movie became known to us as The Beast With Three Wires. Except, Jeff now referred to it as The Beast With Five Wires. Always a wordsmith, it was very unlike Jeff to be wrong like that. It was a sign, as if another were needed, that Jeff was struggling.
Choosing just the right numbers is a tricky, and too often overlooked, business. A seemingly minor change in a parameter or coefficient can make a problem much easier or harder; it can avoid or offer a distracting dead end. Textbook authors invariably spend way, way too little time considering the subtle and not-so-subtle effects of such choices.
The humour of choosing numbers is even trickier, since almost nothing about humour is easy to explain. “43 Degrees” is obviously funnier than “45 Degrees”, since 45 is too symmetric a choice. An explanation of the Wires is less clear, although the fact that “three wires” is funnier is obvious, at least to me.
Below is a clip from a forum featuring Sid Caesar and his writers from the legendary Your Show of Shows. In the clip they are recalling a writers’ meeting, where they had to figure out the funniest roulette number for the wonderful Imogene Coca to say in a skit; they are focussing on the sounds, although there is more to it. It’s a great clip.*
*) I haven’t been able to locate the actual skit.