Outwitting our inner censor

From ancient Rome to 9/11, jokes have long been a way for humans to fart in the face of conventional logic, expectation and morality.

Tim Black

Tim Black
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This article is republished from the November 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

Jim Holt, author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This Before, has pulled off something of a coup. He’s written a book about jokes, both their history and their admittedly negligible philosophy, that isn’t unfeasibly dull. In fact it’s brimful of wit, pith and, mercifully, jokes, some at least 1,600 years old.

It begins with a little definition splashed with Holt’s joke metaphor of choice, the orgasm: ‘What distinguishes the joke from the mere humorous tale is that it climaxes in a punchline – a little verbal explosion set off by a sudden twitch in meaning.’ With this working definition in mind, off he trots, dry and bold, into the distinctly nether regions of the joke’s history.

We learn that Palmedes, a Greek hero renowned for outwitting Odysseus on the eve of the Trojan War, is often credited with the first joke. Holt is nothing if not a sceptical guide: ‘Since this proverbially ingenious fellow is also credited with inventing numbers, the alphabet, lighthouses, dice, and the practice of eating meals at regular intervals, the claim should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt.’

So, if not Greek myth, where to start? Well, with, if not the first joke book, then certainly the earliest one still in existence: the Philogelos. Collated some time during the fourth or fifth century CE, its title means something like ‘laughter lover’. What’s interesting is not that many of its ‘jokes’ are staggeringly unfunny, often comically so, but that some are uncannily familiar. Take number 263: ‘“I had your wife for nothing”, someone sneered at a wag. “More fool you. I’m her husband, I have to have the ugly bitch. You don’t.”’ This, clearly the work of some sort of antique Jim Davidson, or Royus Chubbyus Brownium as they were then known, shows that hen-pecked misogyny has always proved a rich comic vein.

From here, Holt skips over the Dark Ages, an era not known for its jokes, and moves straight to Renaissance Rome, where the quickening pace of urban life, and the shorter, sharper cadence of oral discourse, had led to a revival of the art of the joke. Its epicentre was something called the Vatican fib factory, a gathering place for papal types to shoot the breeze after a hard day’s hermeneutics. Its most famous member was a man prolific in all that he did, be it writing, book-hunting or procreating. Enter Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), a man with over 20 children, and even more jokes.

Poggio’s joke opus, the Liber Facetiarum, or Facetiae for short, consists of 273 items, jokes, jests, bon mots and humorous anecdotes. And it sounds like it ought to be fantastic stuff: fat jokes, fart jokes, sex jokes, drunk jokes, erection jokes. Unfortunately, he didn’t quite have the knack for the punchline. As befitting a papal secretary he often preferred a moral to a subversive shock. For instance, he tells one about a woman who, tired of people making fun of her baldness, lifted her skirt to cover her head, and in doing so, revealed her bottom. And the boom tish moment… ‘This is directed to those who, to correct a light fault, commit a graver one.’

Still, it set the format for the ‘jest book’, which by Shakespeare’s time was everywhere. Anyone familiar with Shakespeare’s humour will not be surprised that the Tudor joke was largely scatological. Take this: ‘What is the most cleanliest leaves among all other leaves? It is holly leaves, for nobody will wipe his arse with them.’ But even then, the punchlines were not quite punchy enough. In fact, according to Holt, you have to wait until the early seventeenth century and the English publication of Poggio for the Anglo joke to begin to find its feet. Joe Miller’s Jests, published in 1739, was the most famous of subsequent collections, featuring mostly ‘bawdy plays on the word “cock”’ and a fair few jokes about bad breath and Irish men. And not always in conjunction.

On Holt proceeds with his whistle stop tour of the history of the joke, taking in on the way a number of twentieth-century eccentrics, from Gershon Legman, author of the breathtakingly arid The Rationale of the Dirty Joke, to Nat Schmulowitz, the founder of the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit and Humour at San Francisco Public Library.

And with the close of this breathless race through history, Holt feels confident enough to address the philosophy of the joke. His stance towards the possibility of theorising humour is broadly sceptical. Like overarching theories of literature, theories of jokes suffer from generalisation. Consequently, diverse particulars – that is, fanny jokes, anal sadism jokes, disaster jokes, surreal jokes, meta-gags, puns and so on – resist the despotism of a single definition.

Holt demonstrates this by running through the three main theories and then showing how they fail to account for the diversity of humour. First there’s the ‘superiority theory’, favoured by Plato, Hobbes and Henri Bergson. It assumes that all humour is at root mockery and derision. And by and large, it sounds quite convincing. Except it can’t account for, say, puns. Second there’s the most popular, the so-called ‘incongruity theory’, which reckons that humour dissolves the ‘decorous and the logical’ into the low and absurd. In this sense it does seem true to say that all humour involves a bit of incongruity. But many things that are incongruous, like an out-of-tune instrument or parental cruelty, are not necessarily funny.

But there’s a deeper problem with such theories. They just don’t explain anything: neither incongruity theory nor superiority theory shed any light on why we laugh. They seem like pretty elastic descriptions stretched to the point of meaninglessness.

And so Holt comes to the theory he seems secretly to favour: ‘relief’ theory, an essentially Freudian argument that ‘the laughable – ideally a naughty joke – liberates the laugher from inhibitions about forbidden thoughts and feelings’. This does seem to have some purchase, particularly in the realm of the dirty joke. Or indeed the disaster joke: ‘Knock knock.’ ‘Who’s there?’ ‘9/11.’ ‘9/11 who?’ ‘YOU SAID YOU’D NEVER FORGET.’

In a climate of stifling emotional correctness, particularly after an event that seems to demand a collective stock response – in the case of 9/11, mourning – such jokes do indeed seem to act as blessed releases. Like a fart in church.

So you’d expect that those who are most repressed, who are most acutely but unconsciously aware of rigorous mores by which they’re having to live, would laugh loudest. Unfortunately, admits Holt, research by British psychologist Hans Eysenck revealed that those who guffaw hardest at lewd jokes do not tend to be the most repressed.

But perhaps Holt is actually being a little unfair on the Freud-inspired approach to jokes. He does seem too keen to emphasise the cathartic aspect, a sort of Joke Therapy. Instead it’s better to look at the joke in terms of a more conscious awareness of the disjuncture between the way of the world, its moral and legal codes, and those thoughts and behaviours that contradict them, be they deviant or simply absurd. Eysenck’s research is not, therefore, a refutation of Freudian theory, but its validation. Those who laugh hardest are those most torn, not repressed.

Freud, as Holt explains, was interested in jokes because of their analogy to dreams. Like dreams, jokes involve condensation, displacement, representation of things by their opposite, triumph of fallacy over logic. ‘Both’, he says in a key phrase, ‘try to outwit the inner censor’. There is a vital difference, however. Unlike dreams, jokes are meant to be understood. And although Holt recognises this, he doesn’t quite grasp its significance. For while jokes often arise ‘involuntarily’, or, better still, suggest themselves spontaneously, they are not just an attempt by our unconscious to circumvent conscious taboos and prohibitions; they are partially conscious, too. They involve surreptitious deliberation. They are subversive, both in content and form. They outwit the ‘inner censor’ by design.

Jokes, by and large, are convention-busting by detour. Although you know it’s coming, the punchline creeps up on you, with subterranean entendre and sneaky innuendo, before erupting with a fart in the face of conventional logic, expectation, and, most often, morality.

It doesn’t have to be obviously immoral either. In fact, it can exploit the etiquette of offence. John Thomson’s comic creation of the mid-1990s, Bernard Righton, a send-up not only of Bernard Manning but also the pieties of alternative comedy, played around with the expectation of jokes themselves. ‘There’s a black fella, a Pakistani and a Jew having a drink, in a pub… what a fine example of an integrated community.’

Right now, however, it’s the comedy of offence that predominates. As taboos proliferate and speech codes are embraced, jokes punch their lines, with varying subtlety, through the stifling atmosphere of behavioural correctness. It might be a Madeleine McCann joke, or, as Holt shows, a 9/11 joke. Or it could be paedophilia, ‘a touchy subject’, as comedian Josh Howie describes it, ‘one to separate the men from the boys’.

If the ‘twitch’ of recognition, descending into a guffaw, comes from the defeat of the reality-principle – in this case the tyranny of authorised phrases and thoughtless clichés – it makes sense that the deepest, most guttural laugh comes from the eruption of that which one shouldn’t talk about. To quote Cicero: ‘An indecency decently put is the thing we laugh at hardest.’

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, by Jim Holt, is published by Profile Books. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

This article is republished from the November 2008 issue of the spiked review of books. View the whole issue here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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