My high school put on a production of Steve Martin’s “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” for its winter play, and I made the mecca back to my hometown to see the show. I brought two of my friends from my college life with me, and we all thoroughly enjoyed the comedy. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who has the chance to see it. Ever since the three of us saw it, however, we’ve been quoting it, and laughing, because we get the jokes and no one else does.
There’s been one joke in particular we’ve been quoting quite a bit. Originally, we were quoting it because it didn’t really make sense to any of us, and we thought it was just kind of stupid. In the play, only one character (Albert Einstein) actually laughs at the joke. Perhaps, though, we though, we were just missing something. Before I go any further, I should probably share the joke. It goes like this:
A man goes into a bakery and says, “Can you mail a pie?” The baker says, “Yeah, I think we could.” Then the man says, “Well, could you bake me a pie in the shape of the letter E?” And the baker says, “Yeah, I think we could do that. Come back tomorrow, and we’ll have it for you.” So the man comes back the next day, and the baker shows him the pie. The man says, “You idiot! That’s a big E. I wanted a small e, a small e.” So the baker says, “No problem, come back tomorrow, and I’ll see what I can do.” So the man comes back the next day, and the baker shows him the pie. The man says, “Perfect… it’s perfect.” Then the baker says, “So where do you want me to send it?” And the man says, “You know what… I think I’ll eat it here.”
By the silence on stage, it’s immediately clear that none of the characters understand the joke. By the silence in the audience, it’s clear that none of them get it either. Alright, there was some laughter… due to not thinking the joke was funny, and a humorous situation being created due to a non-funny joke being told. I’ll even admit that at first, I didn’t get it. In fact, I’m not even sure if it’s a joke that’s meant to be “got.” But, there are some interpretations we can take that make the joke funny.
1. The choice of “E”
This is the reason that Einstein points out during the play. He notes that the choice of the letter “E” is perfect, and any other letter wouldn’t have worked. He goes on to explain most letters, and it becomes clear that the joke would clearly not have worked with any other letter. However, does this really make it funny? I’m not convinced that having a pie shaped as a letter is a funny situation in and of itself.
2. Pi and e
As you might have thought of by now, the joke can be considered funny because of the mathematical constants associated with it: ? and e. This creates a situation where we have slightly subtle humor, and it makes sense that only Einstein understands the joke. However, it does seem strange that this, then, isn’t the reason for him explaining why the joke is funny. So, while this does add some humor to the anecdote, it’s hard to say this is the definitive reason why the joke is funny.
3. e shaped ?
OK, here’s where the really subtle humor comes in. ? and e are both considered “Transcendental Numbers” — that is, a number which can not be expressed with algebra. Both ? and e, it turns out, fit this description: there’s no way to describe their exact value other than saying “?” or “e“. However, we figured out that e is transcendental before we figured out that ? is transcendental. Additionally, the proof that ? is transcendental is based on the proof that e is transcendental. In this way, e “shaped” ?. Again, this is very subtle humor.
So, what was the original meaning of the joke? With no way to contact Steve Martin, I really can’t be sure. My guess is that the joke wasn’t really meant to be funny at all, and was just meant to set up a situation where one character tells a joke that clearly isn’t funny, so another character can randomly find it funny. However, there is some more humor to be found in the setup.