Personally, I have always collected jokes which seem to contain insights that bypass rational thought. One of the more surprising items I found in my home-town public library was a two-volume tome entitled The Rationale of the Dirty Joke, by Gershon Legman. The book recounts, classifies and analyses hundreds of filthy jokes, most of which are very American, totally unfunny, and entirely baffling to an innocent 16-year old mind. I am ashamed to say I was too ashamed ever to borrow the book, but spent many hours thumbing through it in a private corner of the library. If nothing else, it planted the seed of an idea that there might be more to jokes than making people laugh.
Of course it does help if a joke is funny. But tastes and contexts differ, and what is hilarious with port and cigars in a Vienna drawing room in 1910 may well not work over a cup of instant coffee in the office of Spare Rib in 1972. And humour is clearly subject to historical change, like everything else. Freud, in his outstandingly unfunny Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, gives this example of a joke that he has decided is simply silly (or, in Freud's words, "idiocy masquerading as a joke"):
A man at the dinner table who was being handed fish dipped his two hands twice in the mayonnaise and then ran them through his hair. When his neighbor looked at him in astonishment, he seemed to notice his mistake and apologized: “I’m so sorry, I thought it was spinach.”Time has had its way with Herr Doktor Freud's ponderous analysis, and this is now just about the only funny joke in the entire book. Though on the rare occasions I tell it I tend to substitute "custard" for "spinach".
The sad thing is that no-one tells jokes any more, not even most professional comedians. They've gone the way of grand narratives: it's true, after all, that history is short on punch-lines. And jokes for adults have forever been blighted by a nervousness about the "appropriateness" of the reflexes that trigger our laughter.
I have to admit that most of the jokes that stock my personal repertoire were heard before I went to university, and are now completely unrepeatable. At university, I discovered pretty fast that telling jokes was about as tragically unhip as wearing a vest. But, I have to say, as a learning experience it was second to none: there's no quicker way of discovering the meaning and acceptable boundaries of "sexism" and "racism" than telling a favourite joke and watching the appalled expressions on the faces of people you would quite like to have as friends.
But here is a joke for children, that always makes me laugh:
This is the story of the Brown Paper Cowboy. He had brown paper boots, and brown paper trousers, a brown paper shirt, and a brown paper hat. He even rode a brown paper horse with a brown paper saddle. But one day the sherriff had to arrest him. Why? For rustling.