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Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes [Hardcover]

Jim Holt
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

23 Oct 2008
A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into bar. 'What is this', the barman says, 'some kind of joke?' As he laughs his way though the history of jokes, Jim Holt discovers that most of those we trade are actually hundreds of years old: Palamedes, a Greek hero of the Trojan War, is credited with inventing the joke (before being stoned to death) and it was Philip the Great of Macedon in the 4th century BC who paid to have the first joke book compiled. In describing how they've changed over time (one of the funniest things to ancient audiences was lettuce), we come across not only the oldest but the rudest, the shortest and, allegedly, the funniest. And why do we laugh at these jokes? Holt explores the various theories: for Freud, laughter liberates us from forbidden thoughts and feelings. For Plato, we feel a sudden glory when see, say, someone tripping on a banana-skin. For Kant, we laugh when the logical dissolves into the absurd. Holt also discusses a new way of combining these theories (and looks at those who don't laugh at all - Isaac Newton laughed only once in his life, and Jesus might have wept, but did he laugh?). As for where do jokes come from, one theory is that they're made up by prisoners who have a lot of spare time, and a captive audience...

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: Profile Books (23 Oct 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 184668109X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1846681097
  • Product Dimensions: 17.8 x 11.4 x 2 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 380,459 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


`Wholesome fun for all the family.'
-- Christopher Hitchens

Book Description

Why do we laugh? Where do jokes come from? And have we always laughed at the same things? In this unique, witty and fascinating little book of history and philosophy, Jim Holt reveals all - and throws in the best jokes from the past 2,000 years.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

3.7 out of 5 stars
3.7 out of 5 stars
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Jokes 22 Dec 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Jim Holt, the author of this book, writes wonderfully well The book is a very concise and thoughtful journey through jokes and the role they play in life. Thoughtful and critical.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Stop Yourself Buying it if You Haven't Read This 18 Oct 2013
By Ramus
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I was curious about it, I suppose, so I bought it. I was expecting a more serious analysis on what is humour and why we find certain things funny. Predictably the book presents lots of jokes by way of illustration, but most aren't funny (OK, that's forgivable because it's not meant to be a joke book). Some history of jokes is covered, which is quite interesting. However, my overriding impression is that the book is rather depthless and sketchy, and it fails to deliver a reasonable instruction on the history and philosophy of jokes.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Very interesting 9 Mar 2013
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I've got many knowledge from this little but heavy book. Especially, to learn about Poggio Bracciolini! He was papal secretary in Vatican, collected/investigated all sorts of jokes and had numerous mistresses!
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  24 reviews
25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kalamazoo! 25 July 2008
By Bart King - Published on
This is an erudite and clever book, hence the five stars. I'd expect nothing less from author Jim Holt, whose work I've enjoyed immensely before. But as much as I liked Stop Me If You've Heard This, my enjoyment was, of necessity, short-lived.

At less than 7-by-5 inches in size, this is a smallish book. It's also a slender one. If you subtract the index, credits, and bibliography, it has 126 pages of material. Now subtract the 24 illustrations and you're down to 102 pages of text.

At this point, one notices the book's colossal margins, and how humankind's entire "history of jokes" is covered in 41 pages. In fact, this section is as much about joke collectors throughout the ages as the jokes themselves.

But all is forgiven in the book's second half ("Philosophy"), wherein Holt really shines. In addition to providing a variety of jokes types, there are also a number of worthy theories regarding their origins, classifications, and ramifications. In short, this is the part of the book where you'll laugh.

To sum up, while I anticipated a hardcover book, what I got was a bound copy of two essays. These were, respectively, good and most excellent. But imagining a bookstore shopper paying this book's list price of $15.95 makes me a little uneasy. While I was happy to avail myself of the on-line discount, perhaps the publisher could have taken this book's price point more... seriously?

*Finally, as to "Kalamazoo!", it is Holt's submission for the shortest joke in the world. (You'll have to read his explanation on pp. 79-80.)
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Though short, it packs a punch! 2 Sep 2008
By Blaine Greenfield - Published on
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
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars What's so funny? 28 Aug 2008
By Kaeli Vandertulip - Published on
This is the question that Holt aims to answer in his short, witty, and pithy book. He traces the history of jokes-when we started telling them, when they were recorded, and how they have evolved (and devolved) over time. He focuses mostly on dirty jokes-jokes about sex, bodily functions, racism, and sexism-namely because at a certain level, all jokes are dirty and tasteless, and that's why we love them. He also examines WHY things are funny from philosophical, psychological, and physiological perspectives. Do we laugh at a joke because it is unexpected, because it allows us to acknowledge the darker sides of our psyche, or because a certain section of our brain is suddenly stimulated?

Holt is a clever writer and provides lots of sample jokes to show what he's trying to explain. However, this book is just too darn short. He could have easily doubled the length of the book to just get into everything. This book gives a few biographies of influential people in the history and study of jokes, but doesn't delve into the theories nearly deeply enough. I was constantly disappointed that he didn't spend more time on each topic. But this just shows how good a read the book is-he leaves the reader wanting more.
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars No! No! Don't Stop! 5 Sep 2008
By R. Hardy - Published on
Jim Holt, a columnist and contributor to the _New Yorker_, collects jokes, and the shortest among them is two words: "Pretentious? Moi?" It is fitting that he has included it in his book _Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes_ (Norton), for his own book is tiny, and despite its brevity, it succeeds in delivering its intended history and philosophy just as well as the two-word joke delivers a smile. It might seem strange that jokes should be a subject for philosophical enquiries, but consider how central they are to the human condition. Sit down at a dinner party, and a good deal of the conversation will be directed at putting together strings of words that will elicit laughter from the hearers. Another reason jokes ought to be considered food for philosophical thought is that philosophers through history have indeed speculated about them, and have come up with answers about why jokes are funny, but none of the answers is complete or completely satisfying. Another reason to study the history and philosophy of jokes is that when one does so, one necessarily gets to read lots of jokes, and Holt's little volume does contain plenty of good ones.

The book is divided into two parts, necessarily "History" and "Philosophy". There were jokebooks of the ancients, since Plautus refers to their existence in his comic plays, but only one has come down to us, the _Philolegos_ ("laughter lover") from the fourth or fifth century C.E. The jokes in it are peopled with stock characters like the miser, the drunk, and the sex-starved woman. "How shall I cut your hair?" a talkative barber asks a customer. "In silence!" comes the retort. Holt writes admiringly of the more contemporary work of joke collector Gershon Legman, who claimed to have invented the slogan "Make Love, Not War" and who obtained books for Alfred Kinsey's collection. The admiration is muted, however: "Reading through Legman's vast compilation of dirty jokes is a punishing experience, like being trapped in the men's room of a Greyhound bus station in the 1950s." Philosophy, of course, seems to begin with the Greeks; Plato said that the proper objects of laughter are vice and folly, both well illustrated in jokes here. Immanuel Kant explained that incongruity was what led to laughter, but the philosopher Henri Bergson said that laughs came from a feeling of superiority; watch a man slip on a banana peel, and you laugh because you, yourself, would never, ever exhibit such gracelessness. Freud famously proposed that a joke allows laughter to release inhibited thoughts and feelings of sex and aggression. That sounds good, but Holt notes that if Freud is right, the ones "who laugh hardest at lewd jokes should be the ones who are the most sexually repressed. This seems to be backwards. No general explanation of why we laugh at jokes seems to work in all cases, and the problem may be that trying to understand the funniness of specific jokes is just not funny. The explanation of a joke is not funny, it never helps us appreciate the joke more (and often less), and it seldom seems like a good explanation.

As with so many philosophical issues these days, perhaps only because of our current fashions of research, humor may simply come down to the neurological. Using an electric probe to try to find the cause of a patient's seizures, doctors stimulated a part of her left frontal lobe, eliciting a laugh. It happened over and over, and it was not just a mere physical reflex. She really did find things funny, whether she was looking at the operating team, or at a picture of a horse they showed her. Put a little current to the "L-spot" of the brain, and everything becomes a joke. There is little risk that neurosurgical procedures are going to impair the activities of joke-tellers, however; telling a joke is a simpler way of getting a laugh than doing brain probes, and anyway, whatever the purpose of jokes is, it probably cannot be accomplished in such an electromechanical way. Like many things, jokes are probably best appreciated for themselves and not for any thinking that they might inspire. Holt's little volume will inspire some thinking, but it also contains more than its share of good (along with some bad) jokes, including one that he has traced back in different forms which people have been laughing at for fifteen centuries. And he even includes a personal favorite of mine, a meta-joke: "A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says, `What is this, a joke?'"
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Thinking About Laughing Is Enough To Make You Laugh 20 Sep 2012
By BobReviews - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
Usually history and laughter don't go together, but in this case they do. To tell you the truth this book isn't much of an annotation, but that might be because there isn't a lot of source material. Sure, in the real world there are plenty of jokes floating around, but just try to find the sources. Author Jim Holt has not done that, but what he has done is come up with the names of a few individuals who have. (They might just surprise you, because they aren't very well known; unless Poggio Bracciolini, Joe Miller, Gershon Legman, Nat Schmulowitz and Alan Dundes ring a bell.)

The book is only 126 pages long. There is a collection of one-liners contained within that are guaranteed to bring a smile to your face, (and sometimes two and three-liners). To me, that is worth the price of admission right there. But what Mr. Holt has really done is open up the dialogue for further research and discussion. He presents foundational premises about the nature of humor, even quoting Sigmund Freud, (who was a big collector of jokes, and who wrote `Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious').

So you see, some of this is no laughing matter, or maybe it is, depending on your outlook, and your upbringing. You see, "getting" a joke is purely subjective, and it is bound by time and culture. Then there are the people who never laugh, like Stalin and Hitler, (no surprise there). In fact, one of the stories in this book is about a guy who was executed for naming his horse Adolph, (talk about an audience that kills). Another aspect of the story had to do with the regions of the brain that process laughter. (I guess the clones in the future will have that area genetically-engineered out by the authorities.)

But here we have a new field opening up that is ripe for the picking. Just order up some old sitcoms and variety shows, and take plenty of notes. Hit the stand-up cable television shows. Go into the Henny Youngman archives. (Do they even exist?) Watch all of the old George Carlin specials. (Now I have your attention, right?) Just think of it, here is a topic that can never be boring. Even stale jokes can bring a snicker. Watching something that seems lost in another time, or era, will make you wonder. (Just why did they find that funny?) You can learn and smile at the same time. How often does that happen? Recently I caught a few Johnny Carson DVDs, a sort of "greatest hits" package. Much of what was presented I had not seen before, (it was on after my childhood bed time). Some of it was dated, but the best parts were timeless.

That is the thing about laughter. You don't always know when it is coming. The surprise element is therapeutic in itself. So just picture yourself looking through some musty old research file and finding the mother lode, some universal gag that cuts across the generations, (like Laurel and Hardy does for me). Have you ever noticed that the best sitcoms and comedians have the knack of getting to your funny bone? Is that just a learned talent or is it something deeper? Don't you think that Jerry Seinfeld has always seen life slightly off-kilter? Did Rodney Dangerfield ever take himself seriously? Was Richard Pryor ever able to control his wildly fluctuating mind? (Why would he have wanted to?) That's right, the talented ones may be here for a reason, (if you believe in fatalism). They make life tolerable. No matter how high the wall of BS gets, there is always someone there to tear it down for you.

So do yourself a favor and check out this book. It will make you wonder, (about all of the hidden laughs out there). In times like these we need it, more than ever. I mean, how can you go back to the evening news with a straight face after watching Jon Stewart and the Daily Show. Is that even possible?
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