I just read a fun little book, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This by Jim Holt. It is subtitled “A history and philosophy of jokes” but I don’t know how accurate that is. It does have some history and philosophy, but it is more like a personal essay about jokes. It is really good: you can ask my friends who had to put up with me texting them jokes all day yesterday.
Stop me if you’ve heard this: What does a snail say when riding on the back of a turtle? “Whee!” (This joke is listed in the index under, “Snails, relative excitability of.”)
That’s probably the sweetest joke I’ve ever heard. I went to lunch with my brother yesterday and I was looking through the book for jokes. That was about the only one I could find that wasn’t offensive in one way or another. Holt says that the majority of all jokes are sexual or scatalogical. Thankfully, he sticks mostly to the sexual.
Here is an example of a joke that dates back to the 1890s, was popularly told about Clinton, but is here about Richard Nixon:
Nixon’s taking a walk around the White House grounds one winter day when he comes across the words, “I hate Tricky Dick” written in urine in the snow. He tells the Secret Service to investigate. A week later, they come back to him and say, “Well, My. President, we’ve analyzed the urine, and it turns out to be Secretary Kissinger’s. But we’ve also analyzed the handwriting, and it’s the First Lady’s.”
Actually, I had to think about that for moment. And this isn’t that surprising. Consider a time last week when I met some friends at a bar.
I told them that during the VP debate, what I really wanted to see was a street fight. One of my friends said, “My dad always said that in a street fight with a black guy, you should kick ’em in the shins because their skulls are so think.” Understandably, this statement made me uncomfortable. So as is my nature, I tried to relieve the tension. And I said, “Yeah, kick ’em in the shin, ’cause that’s where their dicks are.” They burst out laughing. I immediately figured out that I had not made the joke I had thought—I made a much stronger joke. All I meant to say was that his father’s advice was stupid; kicking someone in the balls in a better idea. Thus, I was making a simple sarcastic statement. And in doing so, I was taking the heat off the racial aspect of the statement. The joke that was heard, of course, just perpetuated yet another racial stereotype. It did work to move the conversation on.
The most interesting thing about the history of jokes is how they come and go. It seems that the ancient Greeks perfected the joke, but during the Dark Ages, the art was lost. It was mostly reinvented (if that’s the word) by the Italian humanist Paggio Bracciolini, in the mid-15th century. But he hardly perfected it. Check out the following joke for an example of beating an idea to death:
The abbot of Septimo, an extremely corpulent man, was traveling toward Florence one evening. On the road he asked a peasant, “Do you think I’ll be able to make it through the city gate?” He was talking about whether he would be able to make it to the city before the gates were closed. The peasant, jesting on the abbot’s fatness, said, “Why, if a cart of hay can make it through, you can, too!”
This is kind of like, “Take my wife, as in ‘consider my wife’… Please! In the different sense of ‘take’ you see. I was implying that you should consider my wife but I was really just saying that you should take her off my hands! This is because I don’t like my wife very much.” That Henny Youngman really could have taken some lessons from Bracciolini.
There is much more in Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. And it is a quick read—an hour or two. ($15.95 for 20,000 words!) It is a good starting point to learning more about the subject.
By the way, here’s my favorite joke (which is not in the book): How many surrealists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Fish!