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A joke is a question, short story, or depiction of a situation made with the intent of being humorous. To achieve this end, jokes may employ irony, sarcasm, word play and other devices. Jokes may have a punchline that will end the sentence to make it humorous.

A practical joke or prank differs from a spoken one in that the major component of the humour is physical rather than verbal (for example placing salt in the sugar bowl).

[edit] Purpose

Jokes are typically for the entertainment of friends and onlookers. The desired response is generally laughter; when this does not happen the joke is said to have "fallen flat".

However jokes have other purposes and functions, common to comedy/humour/satire in general.

[edit] Antiquity of jokes

Jokes have been a part of human culture since at least 1900 BC. A fart joke from ancient Sumer is currently believed to be the world's oldest known joke[1]

A recent discovery of a document called Philogelos (The Laughter Lover) gives us an insight into ancient humour. Written in Greek by Hierocles and Philagrius, it dates to the third or fourth century AD, and contains some 260 jokes. Considering humour from our own culture as recent as the 19th century is at times baffling to us today, the humour is surprisingly familiar. They had different stereotypes, the absent-minded professor, the eunuch, and people with hernias or bad breath were favourites. A lot of the jokes play on the idea of knowing who characters are:

A barber, a bald man and an absent minded professor take a journey together. They have to camp overnight, so decide to take turns watching the luggage. When it's the barber's turn, he gets bored, so amuses himself by shaving the head of the professor. When the professor is woken up for his shift, he feels his head, and says "How stupid is that barber? He's woken up the bald man instead of me."

There is even a version of Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch: a man buys a slave, who dies shortly afterwards. When he complains to the slave merchant, he is told: "He didn't die when I owned him." Comic Jim Bowen has presented them to a modern audience. "One or two of them are jokes I've seen in people's acts nowadays, slightly updated. They put in a motor car instead of a chariot - some of them are Tommy Cooper-esque."[2]

[edit] Psychology of jokes

Why we laugh has been the subject of serious academic study, examples being:

  • Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Judgement (1790) states that "Laughter is an effect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing." Here is Kant's 220-year old joke and his analysis:

"An Englishman at an Indian's table in Surat saw a bottle of ale being opened, and all the beer, turned to froth, rushed out. The Indian, by repeated exclamations, showed his great amazement. - Well, what's so amazing in that? asked the Englishman. - Oh, but I'm not amazed at its coming out, replied the Indian, but how you managed to get it all in. - This makes us laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure. This is not because, say, we think we are smarter than this ignorant man, nor are we laughing at anything else here that it is our liking and that we noticed through our understanding. It is rather that we had a tense expectation that suddenly vanished..."

Marvin Minsky suggests that laughter has a specific function related to the human brain. In his opinion jokes and laughter are mechanisms for the brain to learn nonsense. For that reason, he argues, jokes are usually not as funny when you hear them repeatedly.
Edward de Bono suggests that the mind is a pattern-matching machine, and that it works by recognising stories and behaviour and putting them into familiar patterns. When a familiar connection is disrupted and an alternative unexpected new link is made in the brain via a different route than expected, then laughter occurs as the new connection is made. This theory explains a lot about jokes. For example:
  • Why jokes are only funny the first time they are told: once they are told the pattern is already there, so there can be no new connections, and so no laughter.
  • Why jokes have an elaborate and often repetitive set up: The repetition establishes the familiar pattern in the brain. A common method used in jokes is to tell almost the same story twice and then deliver the punch line the third time the story is told. The first two tellings of the story evoke a familiar pattern in the brain, thus priming the brain for the punch line.
  • Why jokes often rely on stereotypes: the use of a stereotype links to familiar expected behaviour, thus saving time in the set-up.
  • Why jokes are variants on well-known stories (e.g. the genie and a lamp and a man walks into a bar): This again saves time in the set up and establishes a familiar pattern.

Laughter, the intended human reaction to jokes, is healthy in moderation, uses the stomach muscles, and releases endorphins, natural "feel good" chemicals, into the brain.

[edit] Jokes in organizations

Jokes can be employed by workers as a way to identify with their jobs. For example, 9-1-1 operators often crack jokes about incongruous, threatening, or tragic situations they deal with on a daily basis.[3] This use of humor and cracking jokes helps employees differentiate themselves from the people they serve while also assisting them in identifying with their jobs.[4] In addition to employees, managers use joking, or jocularity, in strategic ways. Some managers attempt to suppress joking and humor use because they feel it relates to lower production, while others have attempted to manufacture joking through pranks, pajama or dress down days, and specific committees that are designed to increase fun in the workplace.[5]

[edit] Rules

The rules of humour are analogous to those of poetry. These common rules are mainly timing, precision, synthesis, and rhythm. French philosopher Henri Bergson has said in an essay: "In every wit there is something of a poet."[6] In this essay Bergson views the essence of humour as the encrustation of the mechanical upon the living. He used as an instance a book by an English humorist, in which an elderly woman who desired a reputation as a philanthropist provided "homes within easy hail of her mansion for the conversion of atheists who have been specially manufactured for her, so to speak, and for a number of honest folk who have been made into drunkards so that she may cure them of their failing, etc." This idea seems funny because a genuine impulse of charity as a living, vital impulse has become encrusted by a mechanical conception of how it should manifest itself.

[edit] Precision

To reach precision, the comedian must choose the words in order to provide a vivid, in-focus image, and to avoid being generic as to confuse the audience, and provide no laughter. To properly arrange the words in the sentence is also crucial to get precision. An example by Woody Allen (from Side Effects, "A Giant Step for Mankind" story [2]):

' Grasping the mouse firmly by the tail, I snapped it like a small whip, and the morsel of cheese came loose. '

[edit] Synthesis

That a joke is best when it expresses the maximum level of humour with a minimal number of words, is today considered one of the key technical elements of a joke.[citation needed] An example from George Carlin:

' I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don't have as many people who believe it.[7] '

Though, the familiarity of the pattern of "brevity" has led to numerous examples of jokes where the very length is itself the pattern-breaking "punchline".[citation needed] Numerous examples from Monty Python exist, for instance, the song "I Like Traffic Lights". More recently, Family Guy often exploits such humor: for example in the episode "Wasted Talent", Peter Griffin bangs his shin, a classic slapstick routine, and tenderly nurses it whilst inhaling and exhaling to quiet the pain, for considerably longer than expected.[vague] Certain versions of the popular vaudevillian joke The Aristocrats can go on for several minutes, and it is considered an anti-joke, as the humour is more in the set-up than the punchline.[vague]

[edit] Rhythm

The joke's content (meaning) is not what provokes the laugh, it just makes the salience of the joke and provokes a smile. What makes us laugh is the joke mechanism. Milton Berle demonstrated this with a classic theatre experiment in the 1950s: if during a series of jokes you insert phrases that are not jokes, but with the same rhythm, the audience laughs anyway. A classic is the ternary rhythm, with three beats: Introduction, premise, antithesis (with the antithesis being the punch line).

In regards to the Milton Berle experiment, they can be taken to demonstrate the concept of "breaking context" or "breaking the pattern". It is not necessarily the rhythm that caused the audience to laugh, but the disparity between the expectation of a "joke" and being instead given a non-sequitur "normal phrase." This normal phrase is, itself, unexpected, and a type of punchline.

[edit] Comic

In the comic field plays the 'economy of ideative expenditure'; in other words excessive energy is wasted or action-essential energy is saved. The profound meaning of a comic gag or a comic joke is "I'm a child"; the comic deals with the clumsy body of the child.

Laurel and Hardy are a classic example. An individual laughs because he recognises the child that is in himself. In clowns stumbling is a childish tempo. In the comic, the visual gags may be translated into a joke. For example in Side Effects (By Destiny Denied story) by Woody Allen:

' "My father used to wear loafers," she confessed. "Both on the same foot". '

The typical comic technique is the disproportion.

[edit] Wit

In the wit field plays the "economy of censorship expenditure"[8](Freud calls it "the economy of psychic expenditure"); usually censorship prevents some 'dangerous ideas' from reaching the conscious mind, or helps us avoid saying everything that comes to mind; adversely, the wit circumvents the censorship and brings up those ideas. Different wit techniques allow one to express them in a funny way. The profound meaning behind a wit joke is "I have dangerous ideas". An example from Woody Allen:

' I contemplated suicide again - this time by inhaling next to an insurance salesman. '

Or, when a bagpipe player was asked "How do you play that thing?" his answer was:

' Well. '

Wit is a branch of rhetoric, and there are about 200 techniques (technically they are called tropes, a particular kind of figure of speech) that can be used to make jokes.[9]

Irony can be seen as belonging to this field.

[edit] Humour

In the comedy field, humour induces an "economised expenditure of emotion" (Freud calls it "economy of affect" or "economy of sympathy". Freud produced this final part of his interpretation many years later, in a paper later supplemented to the book.).[8][10] In other words, the joke erases an emotion that should be felt about an event, making us insensitive to it.e.g: "yo momma" jokes. The profound meaning of the void feeling of a humour joke is "I'm a cynic". An example from Woody Allen:

' Three times I've been mistaken for Robert Redford. Each time by a blind person. '

This field of jokes is still a grey area, being mostly unexplored. Extensive use of this kind of humour can be found in the work of British satirist Chris Morris, like the sketches of the Jam television program.

Black humour and sarcasm belong to this field.

[edit] Cycles

Folklorists, in particular (but not exclusively) those who study the folklore of the United States, collect jokes into joke cycles. A cycle is a collection of jokes with a particular theme or a particular "script". (That is, it is a literature cycle.)[11] Folklorists have identified several such cycles:

Gruner discusses several "sick joke" cycles that occurred upon events surrounding Gary Hart, Natalie Wood, Vic Morrow, Jim Bakker, Richard Pryor, and Michael Jackson, noting how several jokes were recycled from one cycle to the next. For example: A joke about Vic Morrow ("We now know that Vic Morrow had dandruff: they found his head and shoulders in the bushes") was subsequently recycled about Admiral Mountbatten after his murder by Irish Republican terrorists in 1979, and again applied to the crew of the Challenger space shuttle ("How do we know that Christa McAuliffe had dandruff? They found her head and shoulders on the beach.").[27]

Berger asserts that "whenever there is a popular joke cycle, there generally is some widespread kind of social and cultural anxiety, lingering below the surface, that the joke cycle helps people deal with".[28]

[edit] Types of jokes

Jokes often depend on the humour of the unexpected, the mildly taboo (which can include the distasteful or socially improper), or playing off stereotypes and other cultural beliefs. Many jokes fit into more than one category.

[edit] Subjects

Political jokes are usually a form of satire. They generally concern politicians and heads of state, but may also cover the absurdities of a country's political situation. A prominent example of political jokes would be political cartoons. Two large categories of this type of jokes exist. The first one makes fun of a negative attitude to political opponents or to politicians in general. The second one makes fun of political clichés, mottoes, catch phrases or simply blunders of politicians. Some, especially the "you have two cows" genre, derive humour from comparing different political systems.

Professional humour includes caricatured portrayals of certain professions such as lawyers, and in-jokes told by professionals to each other.

Mathematical jokes are a form of in-joke, generally designed to be understandable only by insiders. (They are also often strictly visual jokes.)

Ethnic jokes exploit ethnic stereotypes. They are often racist and frequently considered offensive.

For example, the British tell jokes starting "An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman..." which exploit the supposed parsimony of the Scot, stupidity of the Irish or rigid conventionality of the English. Such jokes exist among numerous peoples.

Racially offensive humour is often considered funny, but similar jokes based on other stereotypes (such as blonde jokes) are often considered even more funny.

Religious jokes fall into several categories:

  • Jokes based on stereotypes associated with people of religion (e.g. nun jokes, priest jokes, or rabbi jokes)
  • Jokes on classical religious subjects: crucifixion, Adam and Eve, St. Peter at The Gates, etc.
  • Jokes that collide different religious denominations: "A rabbi, a medicine man, and a pastor went fishing..."
  • Letters and addresses to God.

Self-deprecating or self-effacing humour is superficially similar to racial and stereotype jokes, but involves the targets laughing at themselves. It is said to maintain a sense of perspective and to be powerful in defusing confrontations. Probably the best-known and most common example is Jewish humour. The egalitarian tradition was strong among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe in which the powerful were often mocked subtly. Prominent members of the community were kidded during social gatherings, part a good-natured tradition of humour as a levelling device. A similar situation exists in the Scandinavian "Ole and Lena" joke.

Self-deprecating humour has also been used by politicians, who recognise its ability to acknowledge controversial issues and steal the punch of criticism - for example, when Abraham Lincoln was accused of being two-faced he replied, "If I had two faces, do you think this is the one I'd be wearing?".

Dirty jokes are based on taboo, often sexual, content or vocabulary. The definitive studies on them have been written by Gershon Legman.

Other taboos are challenged by sick jokes and gallows humour; to joke about disability is considered in this group.

Surrealist or minimalist jokes exploit semantic inconsistency, for example: Q: What's red and invisible? A: No tomatoes..

Anti-jokes are jokes that are not funny in regular sense, and often can be decidedly unfunny, but rely on the let-down from the expected joke to be funny in itself.[citation needed] A question was: 'What is the difference between a dead bird ?. The answer came: "His right leg is as different as his left one'. An elephant joke is a joke, almost always a riddle or conundrum and often a sequence of connected riddles, that involves an elephant.

Jokes involving non-sequitur humour, with parts of the joke being unrelated to each other; e.g. "My uncle once punched a man so hard his legs became trombones", from the Mighty Boosh TV series.

[edit] Styles

The question / answer joke, sometimes posed as a common riddle, has a supposedly straight question and an answer which is twisted for humorous effect; puns are often employed. Of this type are knock-knock joke, light bulb joke, the many variations on "why did the chicken cross the road?", and the class of "What's the difference between a _______ and a ______" joke, where the punch line is often a pun or a spoonerism linking two apparently entirely unconnected concepts.

Some jokes require a double act, where one respondent (usually the straight man) can be relied on to give the correct response to the person telling the joke. This is more common in performance than informal joke-telling.

A shaggy dog story is an extremely long and involved joke with an intentionally weak or completely non-existent punchline. The humour lies in building up the audience's anticipation and then letting them down completely. The longer the story can continue without the audience realising it is a joke, and not a serious anecdote, the more successful it is. Shaggy jokes appear to date from the 1930s, although there are several competing variants for the "original" shaggy dog story. According to one, an advertisement is placed in a newspaper, searching for the shaggiest dog in the world. The teller of the joke then relates the story of the search for the shaggiest dog in extreme and exaggerated detail (flying around the world, climbing mountains, fending off sabre-toothed tigers, etc); a good teller will be able to stretch the story out to over half an hour. When the winning dog is finally presented, the advertiser takes a look at the dog and states: "I don't think he's so shaggy."

Some shaggy dog stories are actually cleverly constructed stories, frequently interesting in themselves, that culminate in one or more puns whose first meaning is reasonable as part of the story but whose second meaning is a common aphorism, commercial jingle, or other recognisable word or phrase. As with other puns, there may be multiple separate rhyming meanings. Such stories treat the listener or reader with respect. (See: "Upon My Word!", a book by Frank Muir and Denis Norden, spun off from their long-running BBC radio show My Word!.)

[edit] See also

[edit] Notes

  1. ^ 'World's oldest joke' traced back to 1900 BC.
  2. ^ Classic gags discovered in ancient Roman joke book March 13, 2009
  3. ^ "Tracy, S. J., Myers, K. K., & Scott, C. W. (2006). Cracking jokes and crafting selves: Sensemaking and identity management among human service workers. Communication Monographs, 73,283-308."
  4. ^ "Lynch, O. H. (2002). Humorous communication: Finding a place for humor in communication research. Communication Theory, 4,423-445."
  5. ^ "Collinson, D. L. (2002). Managing humour. Journal of Management Studies, 39,269-288."
  6. ^ Henri Bergson (2005) [1901]. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Dover Publications. http://www.authorama.com/laughter-9.html. 
  7. ^ George Carlin (2010). George Carlin Reads to You: Brain Droppings, Napalm & Silly Putty, and More Napalm & Silly Putty. Highbridge Company. 
  8. ^ a b Sigmund Freud (missingdate). Wit and its relation to the unconscious. missingpublisher. pp. 180,371'374. http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/dickens/kincaid2/intro2.html. 
  9. ^ Salvatore Attardo (1994). Linguistic Theories of Humour. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 55. ISBN 3-11-014255-4. 
  10. ^ Sigmund Freud (1928). "Humour". International Journal of Psychoanalysis. 
  11. ^ Salvatore Attardo (2001). "Beyond the Joke". Humorous Texts: A Semantic and Pragmatic Analysis. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 69'71. ISBN 311017068X. 
  12. ^ K. Hirsch and M.E. Barrick (1980). "The Hellen Keller Joke Cycle". Journal of American Folklore (The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 93, No. 370) 93 (370): 441'448. doi:10.2307/539874. http://jstor.org/stable/539874. 
  13. ^ Carl Rahkonen (Winter 2000). "No Laughing Matter: The Viola Joke Cycle as Musicians' Folklore". Western Folklore (Western Folklore, Vol. 59, No. 1) 59 (1): 49'63. doi:10.2307/1500468. http://jstor.org/stable/1500468. 
  14. ^ Elizabeth Radin Simons (October 1986). "The NASA Joke Cycle: The Astronauts and the Teacher". Western Folklore (Western Folklore, Vol. 45, No. 4) 45 (4): 261'277. doi:10.2307/1499821. http://jstor.org/stable/1499821. 
  15. ^ Willie Smyth (October 1986). "Challenger Jokes and the Humor of Disaster". Western Folklore (Western Folklore, Vol. 45, No. 4) 45 (4): 243'260. doi:10.2307/1499820. http://jstor.org/stable/1499820. 
  16. ^ Elliott Oring (July ' September 1987). "Jokes and the Discourse on Disaster". The Journal of American Folklore (The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 100, No. 397) 100 (397): 276'286. doi:10.2307/540324. http://jstor.org/stable/540324. 
  17. ^ Laszlo Kurti (July ' September 1988). "The Politics of Joking: Popular Response to Chernobyl". The Journal of American Folklore (The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 101, No. 401) 101 (401): 324'334. doi:10.2307/540473. http://jstor.org/stable/540473. 
  18. ^ Alan Dundes (April ' June 1979). "Polish Pope Jokes". The Journal of American Folklore (The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 92, No. 364) 92 (364): 219'222. doi:10.2307/539390. http://jstor.org/stable/539390. 
  19. ^ Christie Davies (1998). Jokes and Their Relation to Society. Walter de Gruyter. pp. 186'189. ISBN 3110161044. 
  20. ^ Alan Dundes (July 1979). "The Dead Baby Joke Cycle". Western Folklore (Western Folklore, Vol. 38, No. 3) 38 (3): 145'157. doi:10.2307/1499238. http://jstor.org/stable/1499238. 
  21. ^ Christie Davies (2002). "Jokes about Newfies and Jokes told by Newfoundlanders". Mirth of Nations. Transaction Publishers. ISBN 0765800969. 
  22. ^ Christie Davies (1999). "Jokes on the Death of Diana". in eJulian Anthony Walter and Tony Walter. The Mourning for Diana. Berg Publishers. pp. 255. ISBN 1859732380. 
  23. ^ Alan Dundes (1971). "A Study of Ethnic Slurs: The Jew and the Polack in the United States". Journal of American Folklore (The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 84, No. 332) 84 (332): 186'203. doi:10.2307/538989. http://jstor.org/stable/538989. 
  24. ^ Alan Dundes, ed (1991). "Folk Humor". Mother Wit from the Laughing Barrel: Readings in the Interpretation of Afro-American Folklore. University Press of Mississippi. pp. 612. ISBN 0878054782. 
  25. ^ Alan Dundes (October ' December 1985). "The J. A. P. and the J. A. M. in American Jokelore". The Journal of American Folklore (The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 98, No. 390) 98 (390): 456'475. doi:10.2307/540367. http://jstor.org/stable/540367. 
  26. ^ Robin Hirsch (April 1964). "Wind-Up Dolls". Western Folklore (Western Folklore, Vol. 23, No. 2) 23 (2): 107'110. doi:10.2307/1498259. http://jstor.org/stable/1498259. 
  27. ^ Charles R. Gruner (1997). The Game of Humor: A Comprehensive Theory of Why We Laugh. Transaction Publishers. pp. 142'143. ISBN 0765806592. 
  28. ^ Dr Arthur Asa Berger (1993). "Healing with Humor". An Anatomy of Humor. Transaction Publishers. pp. 161'162. ISBN 0765804948. 

[edit] References

  • Mary Douglas 'Jokes.' in Rethinking Popular Culture: Contemporary Perspectives in Cultural Studies. [1975] Ed. Chandra Mukerji and Michael Schudson. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

[edit] Further reading

  • Cante, Richard C. (March 2008). Gay Men and the Forms of Contemporary US Culture. London: Ashgate Publishing. ISBN 0 7546 7230 1. Chapter 2: The AIDS Joke as Cultural Form. 
  • Holt, Jim (July 2008). Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes. New York: W. W. Norton. ISBN 0393066738. 

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