Stop Me If You've Heard This, by Jim Holt

by J. Peder Zane

The News & Observer / McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

4 November 2008


Soaring gas prices, flooding rains, market meltdowns, mindless campaigns and mosquitoes here, there, everywhere - smack! I don’t know about you, but I could use a good laugh. To wit (perhaps):

A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What is this, a joke?”
What do a hurricane and a divorce in West Virginia have in common? Somebody’s gonna lose a trailer.
A lady flies to Boston eager to enjoy a plate of the fish the city is famous for. “Where can I get scrod?” she demands of the driver as she gets into the cab.” “Gee,” he replies, “I’ve never heard it put in the pluperfect subjunctive before!”

cover art

Stop Me If You've Heard This

Jim Holt

A History and Philosophy of Jokes

(W. W. Norton)

Those are a few examples of humor cited in Jim Holt’s diverting book, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes. A contributor to The New Yorker magazine, Holt readily acknowledges that thoughtful analysis has the same effect on jokes as cold water on the male anatomy.

Consider this gem: A Jewish grandmother is watching her grandson playing on the beach when a huge wave comes and takes him out to sea. She pleads, “Please, God, save my only grandson. Bring him back.” And a big wave comes and washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new. She looks up to the heavens and says, “He had a hat.”

On second thought, don’t consider it. Once you start asking why it’s humorous, it isn’t. As the artist Saul Steinberg observed, “Trying to define humor is one definition of humor,” largely because the attempt is never funny, which makes it funny, which makes no sense, but there you have it.

Funnily enough, this futility explains the need for Holt’s book. Jokes are central to just about every culture—even the Amish can be riotous—but their history, like Paris Hilton’s brain, has been largely unexplored.

Holt tells us that ancient Athenians traded wisecracks in the kooky corridors of the Temple of Heracles, though none of their knee-slappers about the Spartans and goats remain.
The earliest surviving joke book, the Philogelos (or “Laughter-Lover”), was compiled in the fourth or fifth century A.D. Its 264 items hinged on subjects that remain staples of humor, including, Holt writes, “the drunk, the miser, the braggart, the sex-starved woman, the man with bad breath.” The learned were also a favorite target:

“An egghead was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. ‘Don’t cry,’ he consoled them, ‘I have freed you all in my will.’”

A mirthless millennium followed the fall of Rome—there’s a reason they’re called the Dark Ages. The art of the joke was reborn during the Renaissance, thanks in part to the efforts of Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459), a “secretary to eight popes ... (who) fathered fourteen children with a mistress before taking, at the age of fifty-five, a beautiful eighteen-year-old bride, who bore him another six children.” Clearly, he chose to laugh instead of cry.

In one of his most surprising tidbits, Holt writes that Bracciolini drew many of the jokes for his book, Liber Facetiarum,  from the group of Vatican scribes “who would gather at the end of a tedious day spent drafting papal bulls, dispensations and encyclicals to shoot the breeze and tell scandalous stories.” Who knew?

A typical joke concerned a hefty fellow rushing to Florence late one evening. He asked a peasant “Do you think I’ll be able to make it through the city gate?” The man replied: “Why if a cart of hay can make it through, you can, too!”

Holt tells us that joke books became commonplace after the first one was published in English in 1484. Jokes remained fairly lowbrow until the middle of the 19th century when wit—especially the clever retort - became prized in English culture.

No one embodied this shift better than Oscar Wilde. Holt tells us that in the 1890s, poet Sir Lewis Morris complained to Wilde because he was not to be named England’s poet laureate. “It’s a complete conspiracy of silence against me,” Morris said, “a conspiracy of silence! What ought I to do, Oscar?”  “Join it!” Wilde replied.

While detailing this history, Holt discusses the three major theories of humor. The “superiority theory”, propounded by Plato and Groucho Marx, sees the essence of humor in mockery and derision, in the “sudden glory we feel when” those we dislike are leveled—whether they be the high and mighty or members of religious and ethnic groups.

The incongruity theory held by Immanuel Kant “says that humor arises when the decorous and logical abruptly dissolves into the low and absurd.” An example: “Do you believe in clubs for small children?” W.C. Fields is asked. “Only when kindness fails,” he replies.

The third theory, advanced most famously by Sigmund Freud, holds that laughter frees us from inhibitions, allowing us to safely express “forbidden thoughts and feelings”. An example: Fill in your favorite dirty joke here.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This is a fun and lively book that manages to avoid the pitfall suggested in Jim Holt’s nominee for the best short joke ever: “Pretentious? Moi?” Not this time!

Stop Me If You've Heard This


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