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BW Businessworld

History's Laughter Club

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Its author, Jim Holt, was asked by the New Yorker to write a history of jokes and joke collectors for a special humour issue. Holt half thought to himself it should be a breezy assignment since he could, in that fine tradition of pseudo scholarly journalism, borrow from existing history but was shocked, and then amused to find there was no ready made history on jokes and joke collectors. It was left to him to research and write it from scratch. The assignment had suddenly become challenging, even intriguing. Jokes, he discovered have their roots in folklore, which means they are ancient. In content, they were mostly dirty — sexual or scatological.

What distinguishes the joke, Holt notes, from a humorous story is the punch line, “a little verbal explosion set off by a sudden switch in meaning. A joke, unlike a tale, wants to be brief.” As Freud observed, “it says what it has to say not just in few words but in too few words.” Another version is digressive, delaying the punch line. It is not the cleverness of a joke that counts but the speed with which you get the punch line. The commonly told jokes are usually one-liners: ‘How about the bulimic stag party? The cake came out of the girl’. ‘When I was born, I was so ugly, the doctor slapped my mother.’ There’s a kind of joke that is so aware of itself as a joke, that it becomes the joke, as in: ‘A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar. Bartender says: what is this: a joke?’

Palamedes, a Greek hero of the Trojan war, is credited with inventing the joke. In Athens there was actually a comedy club called The Group of Sixty which met at the Temple of Heracles to trade wisecracks, while Philip of Macedon is supposed to have paid handsomely for jokes. He even collected what could probably be the first joke book, but that collection is now lost. Holt often remarks on how a punch line left unfinished has you dangling in suspense.

(Pic by Michael Todd)

As an instance he quotes his own experience of reading the Philogelos, an ancient collection of jokes, where the narrator of the joke begins saying: ‘Seeing an eunuch, an Aberdite asked him how many children he had. The eunuch replied that he had none since he could not reproduce. Replied the Aberdite……’ The rest is missing from the surviving text. Holt underscores ‘the strange potency of punch lines’.

A typical joke tale that seems to have been passed around in Asia, Arabia and Europe is of the wife who is pleasured by a lover while her duped husband watches uncomprehendingly from a tree. That’s the basic plot, with varying punch lines in different cultures. The first widely read and published joke book is perhaps Liber Facetiarum or the Facetiae by Poggio, (1380-1459), who was — get this — the Papal secretary. The book contained 273 jokes and puns. Poggio even led a joke club in the Vatican, Hold informs us, “called the fib factory where scribes gathered at the end of the day to exchange scandalous tales.”

Holt shows us how a good joke is taken and used in different contexts. As a standard example Holt narrates this: ‘So Nixon is walking around the White House and sees, written in urine on the snow I hate Tricky Dick. He asks the secret service to investigate and they do and report: Mr. President we’ve analysed the urine and it belongs to Kissinger, but the handwriting belongs to the First Lady’. This was repeated later, Holt points out, with Clinton, Gore and Hillary. The interesting thing about it is that this joke originates nearly a 100 years before.

Jokes are never really new, always recycled. Holt tells of a little boy coming out of a school who asked him: ‘Why do farts smell? So deaf people can enjoy them too.’ Holt found this was joke number 241 in the Philologos: fool breaking wind to a deaf person.

Another contemporary reinvention of Knock, Knock, Who’s There? 9-11.
9-11 who? You said you’d never forget.

Physically, laughing involves the contraction of 15 facial muscles, along with the simultaneous stimulation of the muscles of inspiration and expiration, which gives rise to a series of respiratory spasms accompanied by a burst of vowel based notes. Healthful side affects of this: oxygenation of the blood, reduction in stress hormones, and a blistering of the immune system through heightened T cell activity. If the joke experience is too intense, cataplexy can set in, leading to muscular collapse.

“Jokes are a medium for fantasizing about what must be avoided in reality”, concludes Holt. “A way of laughing off our cruel, irrational and aggressive instincts.” Reading the book, I began to wonder about the racist tone of the typical Indian joke — the Sardarji joke. What is the etymology of that? I also started to wonder what patterns or themes form the typical Indian joke. A subject worth researching, surely, and writing a book about.

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