On the Road

January 18, 2013 § 4 Comments

Continuing our discussion on the differences between spontaneous wit and prepared jokes, this week I want to explore the different mindsets they are connected with. I got at this a bit in our last post on the subject, “Who’s lines are these, anyway?“, which concluded:

If a prepared joke is like a speech, then wit is like a conversation. Wit’s natural habitat, in fact, seems to be the conversation, and those that stand out as witty are the sorts of people who are good enough listeners to incorporate what others have said into a fresh comment, the ultimate example being that serendipitous remark that brings a conversation “full-circle” and makes everyone involved feel included—and lucky to have been.

With it’s openness to—and hunger for—new material, wit is the liberal side of the dichotomy. Wit requires that sort of searching faith that is ready to go wherever the truth leads and eager to incorporate whatever it finds into it’s conception of the truth. Ultimately, nothing is off limits to wit; to be witty is to be in a state of creativity—to be “submissive to everything, open, listening” as Kerouac asserts in his “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose“.

This goes not only for the witty, but their audience as well; to be truly receptive to wit, you have to let go of your expectations about what is funny and your biases about what isn’t so you’ll be ready to follow whatever fresh connections are being made. Since wit is essentially conversational, this is usually a given anyhow, as one flips back and forth between joker and audience, staying receptive the whole time. Similarly, if you’re engaged in a battle of wits, you have to be ready to laugh at yourself then redouble that laughter at your opponent—not cross your arms, pout, and decry, “Untrue! No fair!”

Conversely, prepared jokes represent the conservative impulse, a codification of what we think is funny to protect and propagate for future benefit. At its worst, we can see the the dangers inherent in our conservative impulses playing out in racist, sexist, and homophobic humor, as in-groups spread jokes to reinforce their position of prestige and power. Mostly, though, I feel it is fruitful to preserve our jokes; they sustain us in times when our wits are failing and serve as templates for its expression when it is properly firing.

This relationship between the two sides has become clearer to me since trying to compose my own prepared jokes for our jokealongs. I usually start by cataloging as many existing jokes on the subject as I can in order to open myself up to as many possible directions. I’ll usually come up with a few dead ends that night, sleep on it, and think about it at work the next day. When the joke finally comes from out of nowhere, it always hits me with the force of wit; if it doesn’t at least make me chuckle to myself, it isn’t the joke. But once I have it, I have to find a way to communicate that chuckle to someone else, and following a common joke formula often feels like not just the easiest and safest means of expression, but the most effective. We conserve our joke formulas because we know they work, and we use them over and over again because we know our audience will know how they work, allowing more sophistication in our expression as we play to and off of these expectations. As a result, the process of writing a joke often involves trying to shoehorn that moment of mind-expanding insight into a knock-knock script. Whenever I read my jokealong jokes again after posting them, that sense of joyous revelation is almost completely missing, but I have to believe there is more of it communicated to the reader than if I had just kept my laughter to myself.

It is fun and illustrative to think about this process in reverse. Take, for instance, one of our culture’s most ubiquitous and enduring jokes:

Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?

A: To get to the other side.

ChickensCrossingTheRoadResizedEver since I was a child, I thought this joke was banal, but now that I’ve tried to imagine its composition, I’m starting to appreciate it for the masterpiece it is. I mean, who wrote this one? Who laughed at it and then passed it on? In my imagination, there is a bong in a dorm room—but since print references to the joke apparently date back to 1847, I’m probably wrong. I suppose all that ultimately matters is someone spat it out once, and it seemed to so perfectly capture the irreverent uselessness of our wit that it has been passed on ever since. I recognize now that even when I was adamant it wasn’t funny, it was communicating an important lesson about what was funny to me and every other kid who has ever heard it: humor searches without aim, crossing boundaries just because it can.

We obviously need both sides of humor just as our larger culture needs both conservative and liberal impulses: we need wit to find and generate more humor, and jokes to preserve the humor we have found so that we can further build upon it—and there is much to be gained by crossing back and forth, getting from one side to the other.

Punning in Circles

September 17, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’ve added another “page” to the blog, collecting the last three posts on puns into one easy-to-find, -follow, and  -digest location, and titled it Punning in Circles. I owe a lot of the ideas and all the inspiration for these posts to John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises, and I had a lot of fun searching for the best Marx Brothers routines to use as examples.  I’m most grateful, though, for everyone who read my musings and contributed to the discussion.

I’m not sure what my next big series of posts will be about—I’ve been sketching some notes on wit and reading a fair amount of satire lately, so those are possibilities—but I’ve got some book recommendations and fun one-shots in mind to finish out the month.

Thanks again for reading!

Spider-Ham Must Die!

September 10, 2012 § 3 Comments

I sat down to write this last post in my series on puns planning to elaborate on the dichotomy I laid out last post between puns and irony; this was originally meant to be a manifesto for all the punners in the world, a call for us all to keep our eyes out for sarcastic eye-rollers and arm ourselves against their ironic armor.

But then I actually remembered how obnoxious over-punning can be. When I was a kid, I read a lot of Spider-Man comics. (Not as many as I read now that I get paychecks instead of an allowance, but that’s beside the point). In the late 80’s they sometimes featured back-up stories about Peter Porker, Amazing Spider-Ham, a parody of Spider-Man who fought and allied with other animal versions of Marvel characters such as Ducktor Doom, Nick Furry (Agent of S.H.E.E.P.), and the X-Bugs. They all punned incessantly—no one more so than Frank Carple, aka The Punfisher.

I always felt cheated out of the last few pages of my proper Spider-Man comic when they showed up; I didn’t get why Peter Parker needed parodying. I still love it whenever I get to see Batman treated less seriously than normal (which is to say, as seriously as world hunger or less), but Spider-Man already joked around in his regular comic. In fact, he made good puns nearly every issue and they were all the funnier and more affecting because he made them as a means of coping with the incredible danger and loneliness being a hero brought him. In contrast, Spider-Ham made one joke after another just to fill up the panels until the pages became a tasteless pablum of puns. I think it was my first exposure to making bad puns on purpose, the sort of humor that is purposely so unfunny it is supposed to be funny—a form of irony that is not at all in opposition to the pun.

Wrestling with whether puns and irony were opposed or aligned, I came across this last quote for us from John Pollack’s The Pun Also Rises:

Incidentally, both irony and sarcasm are, like puns, a way to say one thing and mean another. However, irony and sarcasm don’t suffer the pun’s poor reputation. Maybe this is because punning, which seeks to create a connection between words and ideas, is inherently an attempt at intellectual construction. Irony and sarcasm, by contrast, tend to be acts of criticism or destruction.

Interestingly, I’d been thinking of them as opposites in exactly the opposite way: puns destroy our illusions that language is exact while irony builds up our false sense of intellectual security. But I don’t disagree with Pollack’s analysis here; I guess it is due to the inexactness I’ve been talking about, but we can both be right while saying opposite things.

Irony and punning can do different things in different situations. Since irony is currently in fashion, the contrarian in me wants to see it degraded. But I could just as easily imagine myself in ancient Sumeria, where the pun was revered enough to start wars, being the guy groaning and rolling his eyes,”Really? You’re going to send all of us off to die in battle just because Prince Apuulluunideeszu pointed out that your name sounds a little like the words for ‘smelly genitalia?’ Really?”

So at the end of three posts, I guess I don’t have much definite to say about puns. Again, I guess I’m just reiterating that one of humor’s most important functions is to illuminate our mistakes, to tear down those structures which don’t build us up but only bind us—including most of the grand sweeping theories we can make about humor itself.

The Invincible Groaning Monster

August 29, 2012 § 1 Comment

Last post, I wrote about how I was glad we  modern Americans don’t take puns as seriously as the ancient Sumerians did, but this week I want to argue that we should take them a little more seriously—or at least take ourselves a little less so.

In The Pun Also Rises, the incredibly readable survey of all things punny on which I’ve been basing these extrapolations of the past few weeks, John Pollack posits that puns fell out of fashion in the 1960’s as audiences came to expect something less contrived and more socially relevant out of their humor.  He then goes on to explain that it’s continued unpopularity is due to the obsession with irony in our popular culture, quoting Gilbert Gottfried: “People want to show they’re a lot more intelligent or above something.”

This ironic stance leads to the knee-jerk groan and the assumption all puns are bad.  But we all know from a classic pun what happens when you make an assumption; in his Modern English Usage, Henry Fowler wrote (and this is, again, brought to my attention by the well-read Pollack):

“The assumption that puns are per se contemptible, betrayed by the habit of describing every pun not as ‘a pun’ but as ‘a bad pun’ or ‘a feeble pun,’ is a sign at once of sheepish docility and a desire to seem superior.  Puns are good, bad, and indifferent, and only those who lack the wit to make them are unaware of the fact.”

It should be noted that other attacks against punning throughout history have been based on a fraudulent sense of superiority.  For example, in describing the crusade against puns Jonathan Swift fought against in England, Pollack cites growing class consciousness as a reason puns fell out of fashion; the new upper class of London began to mock regional accents and grammatical constructions, stigmatizing the sort of linguistic flexibility puns require by trying to enforce one exact spelling, pronunciation, and meaning for each word .

This brings me back to those confusers of conformity, the ultimate dashers of pretension: the Marx Brothers.  In each film they bring a different set of self-inflated elites down to an honest level, often using puns to parody their affectations while underlying just how empty their superiority ultimately is.  In this hilarious example from Horse Feathers, Groucho skewers academics with a biology lecture full of puns.  Pointing at a anatomy diagram as if it is a map:

“We now find ourselves among the Alps. The Alps are a very simple people, living on a diet of rice and old shoes. Beyond the Alps lies more Alps. And The Lord Alps those that Alps themselves. We then come to the bloodstream. The blood rushes from the head, down to the feet, gets a look at those feet, and rushes back to the head again. This is known as auction pinochle.  Now in studying your basic metabolism, we first listen to your heart speed. And if your hearts beat anything but diamonds and clubs, it’s because your partner is cheating…or your wife.”

Note, please, that I’m not some reactionary saying we should ship all the academics back to whatever communist stronghold President Obama was actually born in to protect all the real Americans.  I just think it is important for everyone to be reminded of how arbitrary and fragile most of our conventions are: to invest too much in them, such as basing your sense of worth on your diction, will only lead to stagnation and disappointment.  What I think Groucho is doing here is pointing out that while science may aspire to precision, the language it uses is a mess, so it had better take itself less seriously.  To not do so—to continue reading directly from the textbook in a self-assured tone—is hubris that blinds us to the abstractions and imprecisions inherent in human language and the inevitable trouble that will arise from them.

Perma-irony is hubris of another sort, the naive belief that you can somehow stay above being human.  I think the vain hope inherent in most sarcasm and irony is if you say, “I’m too cool for that,” to enough things, you’ll eventually be too cool for all the ugly things in life—or at least detached enough not to feel them.  Do people fear that if they are caught out enjoying a pun they’ll be dragged down into the mess of language?    What other good reason could someone have for not enjoying something?  As if that a stoic eye-roll might be able to guard them against ever saying the wrong thing or misunderstanding someone again.

The problem is, no one can avoid being human.  Death, heartbreak, fear, and all the rest of it will find you, no matter how cool you are.  To think you are above anything, even verbal foibles, will only ensure you’re too detached to deal with it when it inevitably happens.  All you pun-haters need to quit pretending to  be something other than one of us.  You are not some invincible groaning monster—you’re a human, so go ahead and laugh like one.

Often Poked Holes

April 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

It turns out I’m much more in to blogging than I thought I would be.  I log on everyday to check if any of you kind people have looked at the page, and I’ve been googling various keywords like my name and the title to see how easy it would be for someone to find or stumble across the page.  Unfortunately, there are several Evan Kingstons out there who don’t seem to be as afraid of the internet as me and the blog is pretty far down the list when you google The Oldest Jokes in the World.

On the upside, though, this funny Reuter’s article was at the top of the list.  When I decided on the name, it didn’t even occur to me that we might have ancient jokes on record, but it turns out a few years ago Dave TV commissioned a study of the oldest jokes in the world, several of which are included in the article.

Though the Sumerian example–“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”–made me laugh, I’m not sure I totally get it.  Nevertheless, I find it very exciting that these jokes, though separated from us by thousands of years, are still easily recognizable as humor to our modern sensibilities.  The fact that they’re all about sex surely helps–and reinforces the Chesterton quote I posted earlier in the week: we joke about whatever is most important to us.

“Jokes have varied over the years, with some taking the question and answer format while others are witty proverbs or riddles,” said the report’s writer Dr Paul McDonald, senior lecturer at the university.

“What they all share however, is a willingness to deal with taboos and a degree of rebellion. Modern puns, Essex girl jokes and toilet humour can all be traced back to the very earliest jokes identified in this research.”

Just as they are today, the oldest jokes in the world were a way for their tellers to talk about matters of such import that serious language couldn’t handle them.

Anyhow, thanks again for reading.  And if anyone knows how to get the blog to show up at the top of google or what I’m missing in the joke about the young Sumerian woman farting, please comment below.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with humor history at The Oldest Jokes in the World.