Stop Me If Youve Heard This [Buy Now]
By Jim Holt
W.W. Norton, 142 pages, $16
I once took a class in which the professor believed the point in studying Shakespeares comedies was not amusement so much as profitable scholarship. The Bards comedies, in his view, were his most serious work. To see this, though, students had to assume that funny and serious werent at odds.
I hoped similar reasoning informed Jim Holts new book, Stop Me If Youve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes.
I was wrong.
Holt writes regularly about science and philosophy for The New Yorker and New York Times Magazine. He used to write a great column for Slate called Egghead, in which hed pose questions like, Does the end of the universe matter?
You can see by this that hes a writer of immense wit despite his heavy topics. Thats why Ive read him for years. So I was expecting quite a lot when I heard he was writing a book about the theoretical underpinnings of humor.
I wasnt disappointed by his writing, and the material is loads of fun, but by and large my expectations were too high. While it doesnt purport to be more than much of a muchness, as Holt notes, Stop Me too often settles for a punchline when probing inquiry would be more satisfying and have a more lasting effect.
At just over 140 postcard-sized pages, its a breezy survey of cultural historys obsessive and eccentric joke collectors (in the Renaissance, it was a Papal clerk who ran a fib factory out of the Vatican; in the mid-20th century, it was smut-hunting moralist Gershon Legman) and the people who spent time thinking about what makes them funny and why (which are few in number but includes Kant, Freud, and Ludwig Wittgenstein).
To say that Holt only scratches the surface of that history is overstating it. Its more like hes tracing it with his finger.
Holt crams in the books first half history from ancient Greece (Palamedes, who, as legend has it, created chess, numbers, and daily mealtimes, is credited with inventing the joke formula) to Elizabethan England (where Shakespeare had Beatrice, heroine of Much Ado About Nothing, deliver one-liners cribbed from a then-popular joke book) to the modern era.
Here we get to know the shadowy father of contemporary joke studies, Gershon Legman. Holt gives him ample time and affection, though he admits that combing through his collection of dirty jokes was a punishing experience akin to spending a night in the mens room of a Greyhound bus station of the 1950s.
Born of Jewish parents in rural Pennsylvania, Legman started collecting dirty jokes as a young boy. He educated himself at the New York Public Library, wrote his first book about oral sex techniques under a pen name, and hunted down erotica for the sex studies pioneer Alfred Kinsey.
Because writing explicitly about sex was a chargeable offense (Henry Miller, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence also ran afoul of indecency laws), much of Legmans life seems more apocryphal than factual. Its said he invented the vibrating dildo, created the hippie mantra Make Love, Not War, introduced origami to the West, and had an affair with French memoirist Anais Nin.
Whats clear is that he collected dirty jokes for over 35 years and finally published them in two volumes. One is his clean dirty joke assemblage, Rationale of the Dirty Joke. The other is the dirty dirty joke compilation, titled No Laughing Matter, in which Legman argues against commonplace thinking that the dirtier the joke, the better. I am not sure this is true, he wrote.
Legman was a moralist at heart, Holt writes, not a pornographer (despite that the title of his autobiography, Peregrine Penis, might suggest otherwise). He was serious about revealing why we find dirty jokes funny, even the worst ones that involve sex and violence. In his polemical book, Love and Death, published in the 1940s, he argued that representations of violence are the true forms of pornography.
At least sex is normal, he wrote. Is murder?
This first half of Stop Me If Youve Heard This is all right. Its the second half that disappoints.
Here we find the philosophy of jokes, which falls, Holt writes, in the realm of aesthetic experience. How can we tell were having an aesthetic experience? Because we laugh. How is laughing possible? Because we have a body.
But having a body doesnt mean you have a sense of humor, as evidenced by the philosopher Spinoza, who saved his giggles for his favorite pastime: watching spiders fight to the death.
Few philosophers have given serious effort to examining jokes. Plato and Kant did a little bit. So did Hobbes and Schopenhauer. But nothing compares to Sigmund Freuds Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.
To Freud, jokes were like dreams in which meanings, Holt writes, are condensed and displaced, things are represented indirectly or by their opposites, fallacious reasoning trumps logic.
There is a difference: While dreams elude understanding, jokes are meant to be understood (due to their structure: first set-up, then punchline).
How are they understood? According to category.
There are topical jokes, perennial jokes, cultural jokes, and universal jokes (I was so unpopular when I was little, even my imaginary friend played with the kids across the street). There are jokes about groups of people, jokes appropriate for polite company, and jokes that are dirty enough to be somewhat scandalous (such as George H. W. Bushs favorite: How do you titillate an ocelot? You oscillate its tits a lot.). Then there are the political jokes, geographical jokes as well as jokes of various lengths (one-liners, two-liners, long jokes, shaggy dog jokes, and even jokes of only two words: Pretentious? Moi?").
What theory, Holt asks, can make sense of such diversity? Three come to mind. The superiority theory, as maintained by Plato and Hobbes, is when all humor is at root mockery and derision, all laughter a slightly spiritualized snarl, Holt writes. The incongruity theory, as held by Kant and Schopenhauer, says that humor is about the decorous and logical [that] abruptly dissolves into the low and absurd. The relief theory, held by Freud, says that humor liberates the laugher from inhibitions about forbidden thoughts and feelings.
Theres a loose consensus among philosophers that the second theory at least explains the most, Holt writes. While not all incongruities are funny (Holt cites the ironies of Oedipus Rex as an example), most of whats considered funny displays something incongruous. Why? Kant thought the reason was that the something of the set-up let to the nothing of the punchline. Expectations raised followed by expectations dashed for comic effect.
Despite this, there are more questions than answers as to why jokes are funny. And then theres what they are, whats their essence. That changes according to cultural context, according to whos telling the joke, and whos listening to it, making them a slippery object of thoughtful inquiry.
Even so, theres a feeling of incompleteness in Stop Me. By the end, I was left unsatiated, hungry for more.
Throughout his examination, Holt returns to Freud, who was himself an avid collector of jokes, especially Jewish jokes, a reflection, as one scholar argues, of Freuds enormous ambiguity about being Jewish. The habit of amassing piles of jokes, Holt says, is also an opportunity to expose Freud to his own theories of psycho-sexual interpretation.
One of these, the theory of anal-eroticism, explains that an infant confuses his excrement for something of value (because its a mystery thats cause for parental attention). The infant eventually gets over this, but neurotics dont.
Neurotics hoard and amass worthless things, like newspapers, Franklin Mint limited editions, and, in the case of Freud, jokes.
Nothing is more disposable than a joke, Holt writes.
Perhaps Holt is joking here, but its hard to tell. Does Holt believe jokes are worthless by their nature? Why cant jokes be taken seriously? Maybe this is a whiff of that problematic perspective my teacher talked about that being funny and being serious dont have to be at odds.
Given how thin Stop Me is, how cursory its examination, it feels more like a slightly extended article youd find in The New Yorker. This brevity suggests theres inherently no point in deeper discussion, as some of Holts sources assert, in figuring out whats funny about jokes. And besides, nothing takes the humor out of a joke faster than an explanation of why its funny. Holt wraps up with a hope that he hasnt done just that.
Even so, without probing deeper that is, without at least writing 100 or so more pages Holt ends up suggesting something hed probably not want: that Stop Me amounts to a literate and interesting collection of funny anecdotes, witty asides, knee-slapping bon mots, and praise-worthy wisecracks.
Theres value in that, but not much. We know, thanks to Freud, what thats worth.