Reading STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS: A HISTORY AND
PHILOSOPHY OF JOKES by Jim Holt reminded me of many papers
that my students submit . . there seems to be 142 pages, but after
you subtract a bibliography, credits and an index, you are down
to 126 pages . . . take away another 24 pages for illustrations,
and you're down to 102 pages in a smallish 4.5 x 7 format with
very wide margins.
However, don't be put off by what seems to be a lack
of material . . . what is presented is interesting, as well as fun . . . and
you'll learn perhaps more than you ever wanted to know about such
individuals as Gershon Legman (the encylopedist of the dirty joke), Nat
Schmulowitz (the most prodigious joke collector of all time) and Alan
Dundes (the "joke professor" of Berkeley who saw a sinister side
in elephant jokes).
I kid you not about the latter . . . as the author notes:
* It is no accident that elephant jokes appeared around the beginning
of the civil rights movement, he said. Consider the parallels between
the elephant and the white stereotype of the black: the association
with the jungle, the potential for violence, the idea of unusually large
genitals and corresponding sexual capacity. "You can see this even
in the seemingly most nonsensical jokes," he said. "Why did the
elephant sit on the marshmallow? So he wouldn't fall into the cocoa.
That reflects the white person's fear of blacks moving into his
neighborhood--they're trying to sit on the white oasis in the chocolate,
so to speak. This joke was being told at a time when even liberals felt
anxious about the effects of integration." I confessed to Dundes that
I found his interpretation a tad, well, oversubtle. But he insisted that
there was plenty of anecdotal data in its favor. "When a psychiatrist
friend of mine asked his black secretary if she knew any elephant
jokes, she said, 'Why would we tell them? They're about us.' "
Holt also presents a wide variety of jokes, including these:
* There are jokes about musical instruments, especially the viola,
which seems to be especially despised in the world of classical music.
(Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from the viola recital.
Or, in a more esoteric vein, How was the canon invented? When two violists
attempted to play in unison.)
* There are short jokes, some with a single-syllable punch line. (What's
brown and sounds like a bell? Dung!) There is even the rare joke
consisting of only two words. ("Pretentious? Moi?").
* But what of the pun, widely and perhaps justly regarded as the lowest
form of humor? (Vladimir Nabokov, when told by a professor of English
that a nun who was auditing one of the professor's classes had complained
that two students in the back of the classroom were "spooning" during
a lecture: "You should have said, 'Sister, you're lucky they weren't
forking.' ") Well, one might say that in wordplay we are enjoying
our superiority to language or reason. But now the superiority theory
has become elastic to the point of meaninglessness.
STOP ME might not be the funniest book you'll ever read; however,
I do believe that with respect to jokes, it will be one of the most