Have you heard the one about the college professor who thought he could explain the function of humor?
Ted Cohen is a philosophy professor, and his book "Jokes" certainly philosophizes. It reflects, probes, questions, and speculates on the subject of humor and jokes in particular. The result is a generally interesting, sometimes amusing, occasionally tedious analysis of the subject.
There were only a few jokes that caused me to laugh out loud. But that's all right. Cohen assures us that the fact that one person finds a joke funny and another does not isn't an indication of deficiency in the latter. Yet, he says, we feel the need to share a common response with others. What would the world be like, he speculates, "if I never found the same things funny that you or anyone else find funny?"
The author concludes that all jokes are conditional, as opposed to pure or universal. That is, they require the audience to supply something in order for the joke to be successful. A hermetic joke, he says, is one where "the background condition involves knowledge or belief." He illustrates this point with jokes that require an acquaintance with certain proclivities of doctors, mathematicians, and philosophers.
Cohen also speaks of intimacy, "the shared sense of those in the
community." He notes, "When the community is focused on a joke, the intimacy has two constituents. The first constituent is a shared set of beliefs, dispositions, prejudices, preferences, etc. The second constituent is a shared feeling - a shared response to something."
At times, such analysis seems too heavy for the subject matter. But the examples along the way provide a helpful balance. And despite the occasional ponderousness, the book points to some deeper issues.
This is certainly true of the last chapter, "Taste, Morality, and the Propriety of Joking." Here Cohen discusses, among other things, ethnic jokes, which he describes as "almost everyone's favorite example of jokes that shouldn't be told." He suggests that ethnic jokes can be disturbing even if we believe they do not contribute to pernicious attitudes about certain groups of people. Interestingly, he doesn't appear to address the troubling nature of jokes that are just plain crude.
In this chapter, and earlier, Cohen also discusses jokes about death, which he calls "the ultimate oppressor." Joking about it can give us a feeling of control, of being in charge.
In the chapter "Jewish Jokes and the Acceptance of Absurdity," he shares some insightful observations about the humor of the Marx Brothers. He also talks at some length about laughter - or the absence of it - in the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus.
Often, jokes are inspired by what's currently in the news. But there are some that have no connection with current events. Cohen observes that it is invigorating to create jokes on a very specific, confined topic. For example: What does a snail say when riding on the back of a turtle? "Whee!"
"Jokes" has flaws, not the least of which is some crude humor. But the book has its appeal, too. Because Ted Cohen loves jokes, we come to appreciate them more, and perhaps think further about the quality of good humor and the appropriateness of laughter in our lives.
*Steve Carlson performs as a comic impressionist in the New England area.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society