Thursday, 25 March 2010

Joking Aside

I sometimes think that everything important -- philosophically, spiritually, socially -- could be learned by paying proper attention to jokes. Jokes are perhaps the last living vestige of an ancient method of teaching wisdom by means of an oral tradition of tales and parables. The stories of Zen priests or the tales of "Mullah Nasruddin" seek to instruct at the same time as they amuse or astonish, as perhaps do some of the parables of the Gospels -- puns about passing a camel through "the eye of a needle" (the name of a gate into Jerusalem) have that same faint glimmer of a worn-out joke that the cartoons in ancient copies of Punch now have. Rabbi Lionel Blue in his heyday was, of course, a practitioner of this tradition. It's easy to imagine that much of the philosophical writing of Wittgenstein or Derrida is intended to be hilarious.

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.


Martin H. said...

I was always baffled by the trendy 80s term 'alternative comedy'. Surely, something is either funny or it isn't.

The fact is, that sexist and racist jokes are alive and kicking and being told in private by those who supposedly know better. After dinner speakers, witless TV reporters and a host of PC pushers have been caught crossing the line of acceptability.

The Brown Paper Cowboy is now filed away safely for future use. Thanks Mike.

Dave Leeke said...

Once again, Mike, you write about something that has crossed my mind recently. A couple of days ago I made the point to some colleagues in the staff room that very few people can be bothered to listen to long jokes anymore. The general feeling is that they are seen as boring. Yet I spent much of my youth telling long funny jokes - including shaggy dog stories and listened to many in return. Long evenings of swapping such stories. The folk singer Vin Garbutt is still a superb teller of the longest, shaggiest and very funny such tales.

Anyway, my belief is that the fact that we've become so time-poor that nobody has time to listen. The boredom factor is high. Recently when I tried to regale someone with a longish joke, he was getting jittery and saying, "C'mon, c'mon get to the point."

It would appear that one-liners and terrible puns are about all many people can take nowadays. Long live the long narrative joke.

Mike C. said...


I'm sure you're right about what goes on in private -- given the reclusive life I choose to lead these days, there would have to be door-to-door joke tellers for me to hear many new ones.

I think the insight of "alternative" comedy was simply that humour based on hating women, sex, and foreigners was exhausted and also socially harmful. The problem now is that meandering monologues based on "recognition" humour and sarcasm are also exhausted and socially harmful.

For my money, the Billy Connolly of the 1970s was a comedic high-spot -- "the jobbie weecha" -- and despite what I say in the previous paragraph I'm a big fan of Ross Noble (or "Nerble", to give his Geordie accent its due).


Mike C. said...


Hey, aren't we both supposed to be at work? Heh, heh, heh!

I think you're right -- "come on, get to the point" is about it. People have lost patience with process, whether it be cooking, jokes, or anything with a desirable end result.

Consequently, they are losing access to wisdom: one day, I keep joking, a university degree will be delivered in pill form, and we can all go home.


Dave Leeke said...

Actually, due to the strangeness of our timetable, every other Friday I don't go in to school until 10 o'clock. So I can do the Independent Concise Crossword Online (the only one I seem capable of completing), have a decent breakfast and wander in just about in time to do my form register.

Usually, of course, I read your blog and make comments whilst the pupils are working.

Modern education with its attempt at "independent learning" allows these luxuries.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes indeed.

Kent Wiley said...

Yeah, what they said...

And I really like the pic - not a characteristic Mike C. view of the world.