A New York girl is being led through the swamps of Louisiana by her cousin. “Is it true that an alligator won’t attack you if you carry a flashlight?” asks the city girl.
Her cousin replies, “Depends on how fast you carry the flashlight.”
That is taken (slightly adapted) from Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar, the bestseller by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein. It is a neat and memorable illustration of the difference between correlation and causation. It is also funny. An interesting thing about that is that I can’t figure out how to say what it means that it is funny. I can sort of (at the risk of tedium) say why it is, but not what that means. What is it to find something funny? What kind of thing is humour? How do we explain it? The more I think about it, the more opaque it seems. I have no doubt that I do find something funny, or that other people do; I have no doubt of the importance and value of amusement; yet I don’t know how to go about explaining it to a hypothetical alien. Other human reactions can at least be explained as being based in either desire or aversion, approach or avoidance; but amusement doesn’t exactly fit that schema. It fits in the sense that amusement is something we enjoy, but not in the sense that amusement itself is a kind of liking, or a kind of disliking either.
So this is a hot topic in philosophy, right? No, apparently not, at least not until recently. Plato and a Platypus was a New York Times bestseller, and Jim Holt’s Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One: a History and Philosophy of Jokes was widely reviewed and also did well. But according to Ted Cohen, the author of Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, their success was a surprise rather than a continued trend. “Of course philosophers have written about humour for a long time,” he told me, “beginning at least as early as Plato and Aristotle, but it seems only quite recently that analytic philosophers have taken an interest.”
Cohen begins his book by quoting Wittgenstein to remind us indirectly of this strangeness of humour: “Don’t take it as a matter of course, but as a remarkable fact, that pictures and fictitious narratives give us pleasure, occupy our minds.” We should be struck once again, Cohen continues, “by the fact that there is a kind of story meant to make us laugh.”
Cohen told me that he was attracted to the subject by the fact “that a joke is a small-scale work of art, typically a fiction, and I thought I might learn something about art (after all I am a philosopher of art) by getting a fresh look at things thinking about jokes.”
Simon Critchley, who published On Humour in 2002, cites a similar motivation. “I began to write on humour in about ‘96 as a consequence of work I was doing on Beckett. At that time, the field was a wasteland.”
Again, this seems surprising, for reasons that Critchley indicates.
“The philosopher asks you to look at the world awry, to place in question your usual habits, assumptions, prejudices and expectations. The philosopher asks you to be sceptical about all sorts of things you would ordinarily take for granted, like the reality of things in the world or whether the people around you eating lunch are actually human or really robots. In this regard, the philosopher has, I think, a family resemblance with the comedian, who also asks us to look at the world awry, askance, to imagine a topsy-turvy universe where horses and dogs talk, where lifeless objects become suddenly alive, where groups of nuns take baths together and bears engage in civilized conversation with hunters before subjecting them to unmentionable acts. Both the philosopher and the comedian ask you to view the world from a Martian perspective, to look at things as if you had just landed from another planet, Pluto, Plato or whatever.”
Critchley agrees that jokes and humour themselves are taken for granted, but upon examination seem very odd. “Humour is what I like to call an impossible object. It has huge significance and everyone knows what a joke is or how to laugh at one (well, almost), but it slips through our fingers when we try to pin a definition on it. That is what attracted me to the topic in the first place.”
Jim Holt is also drawn by the enigmatic quality of humour. “The conceptual motive behind the book was humour as an aesthetic value and its relation to the baffling phenomenon of laughter,” he told me. He cited the “three classic philosophical theories of humour: the superiority theory (Hobbes, Plato), the relief theory (Spencer, Freud), and the incongruity theory (Kant, Pascal, Aristotle)”, then noted the theories’ inability to cover all aspects of the subject: “Only the incongruity theory seems to offer any hope of explaining the aesthetic value of humour; only the relief theory tries to account for the intimate connection between humour and laughter.”
Laughter itself is strange, Holt points out. “The contraction of 15 facial muscles and the simultaneous stimulation of the muscles of inhalation and exhalation, resulting in that weird spasmodic chest-heaving and strangulated vowel notes of laughter. That an intellectual stimulus should produce such a grossly physical response makes humour germane not just to aesthetics but also to the mind-body problem, thickly conceived. So it should be doubly interesting to philosophers. The same is true of sex (where the vector goes in the opposite direction, from the physical to the mental).”
Raymond Tallis, in The Kingdom of Infinite Space, wittily calls laughter “normative panting”. To think of laughter as normative perhaps de-stranges it a little. A sense of humour is one of the social skills that autistic people often lack, as is the sense of other minds that most children develop at age four; from that angle humour looks like a shortcut to social bonding. Laughter, like crying, is often involuntary, and thus it is a kind of automatic guarantor of other minds, as talk and smiles and frowns are not. If Chris is laughing helplessly, for that moment everyone present knows what is going on in Chris’s mind.
Holt hoped to shed some light on the way classic philosophical views of humour tallied with the facts on the ground by looking at the history of jokes, from the Greeks and Romans up through contemporary stand-up comedy.
“And what I detected was an evolutionary arc. The joke seemed to be born of lewdness (as the relief theory suggests) and hostility (as the superiority theory suggests), but over the centuries the jocular impulse aspires more and more to pure incongruity. The telos of this process seems to be the philosophical joke, or the Jewish joke.”
Ted Cohen tells a lot of Jewish jokes in Jokes; this one made me laugh:
“A group of Jews decided to take up competitive rowing, and so they formed a crew and began practicing. Months later they had competed several times, and always they not only lost, but came in so far behind that they thought something must be wrong with their approach. They sent one of their number off to England to observe the Oxford/Cambridge race, and then to the Ivy League to see the rowers there. When he returned, he was asked if indeed these other crews had a different technique.
“’Well,’ he reported, ‘they have one guy yelling, and eight guys rowing.’”
I told Cohen that I found the joke funny for several reasons, none of which really depended specifically on Jewishness; I suggested that it could be a group of nerds just as well. (That would make it easier for non-Jews to tell, for one thing, though I didn’t bother saying this to Cohen, since he hardly needs to be told.) He said yes but also pointed out various historical connotations of “Jewish” that make it that bit funnier.
Perhaps my problem is that I don’t really like jokes as a genre. I like the two I’ve included so far, and a few others, but they’re the exceptions rather than the rule. This raises questions about what there is about jokes, as distinct from humour, that one could fail to like. I asked Jim Holt about this, and he suggested two reasons. One is performance anxiety. “When you start out with a formulaic set-up (‘So this lady goes to see her doctor…’ ‘Did you hear about the talking parrot?’ and so on), you run the risk of falling on your face if the punch line bombs, and your audience is subjected to the unpleasant pressure of pretending to find your material funny.” Or, I would add, the irritating coercion of having a kind of category of conversation spelled out to you in advance. We don’t normally specify what kind of discourse we are about to engage in, we just do it, but starting a recognizable joke is a kind of conversational drum roll. Or to put it more simply, it’s a mistake to announce ahead of time that you’re about to be funny, in case you’re not.
Holt said this is why stand-up comedians almost never tell set-up/punch line jokes any more. “Instead, they do ‘observational humour,’ riffing on some theme (such as why bacon is so good) without any obvious tension/resolution structure. That leads to the second reason why jokes might be avoided: unlike observational humour, which is gentle by and large, jokes tend to be either lewd or nasty or both – which may be why men like them better than women. I’ve even heard it said that the ascendancy of observational humour over joke-telling is part of the feminization of culture.”
I hadn’t heard that, but it strikes me as both plausible and (appropriately) amusing. There is something adolescent boy-ish about most prepared jokes; they tend to create a kind of ghostly locker room in the act of telling. If observational humour is in the ascendant over set-up/punch line jokes and that is part of the feminisation of culture then the feminization of culture is a good thing – that’s my view.
Ted Cohen would not agree though. He says in Jokes that a general thesis of his is “that a deep satisfaction in successful joke transactions is the sense held mutually by teller and hearer that they are joined in feeling”. I asked him if there isn’t a corresponding joining in feeling when people find the same thing unfunny – if shared rejection is not as satisfying as shared appreciation. He sees it a little differently. “I am defined as much by those from whom I am different as I am by those with whom I am the same. Two equally unbearable worlds would be one in which I were the same as everyone else (laughed at exactly the same things), and one in which I were different from everyone (never shared a laugh at anything). The appreciators of a joke are ‘insiders,’ and the others are outside. One’s location is given as much by what one is outside as by what one is inside.”
Daniel Klein notes that Plato and a Platypus “is not the Philosophy of Humuor or Laughter, an interesting and much-written-about subject, but not ours”. Klein and Thomas Cathcart were intrigued by the observation that “jokes can explain philosophical concepts, or at the very least, illuminate them. Not all concepts, of course, but a surprising number of basic ones.”
I asked Klein if the marriage of philosophy and jokes seemed a natural one, and he agreed enthusiastically.
“Philosophical concepts and jokes have these commonalities: They both lead you down a familiar path and then pull the rug out from under you/take an unexpected turn that can boggle the mind. And when you ‘get’ a joke, just as when you ‘get’ a philosophical concept, you bop yourself upside the head and go, as William James would say, ‘Aha!’ As a student reading George Berkeley, when we came upon ‘esse es percipi’ [to be is to be perceived], we had just such an ‘Aha!’ when we realized the good Bishop meant that all we mean when we say an object exists is that it is perceivable. Aha! What a punch line!”
Let’s give Simon Critchley the punch line here. His On Humour did well and was translated into a lot of languages, “the last being Farsi. In fact, I was thinking of sending a copy to President Ahmadinejad, particularly as it’s full of Marx Brothers gags and other decadent Western imperialist evidence of the worldwide conspiracy of Jews and homosexuals.”
That’s a good one.
Ophelia Benson is editor of www.butterfliesandwheels.com and co-author of Why Truth Matters (Continuum)