Saturday, March 1, 2008

How to Kill a Joke

My friend Anne introduced me to McSweeney's recently, and when I was a Strands the other evening I found the book "Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans - The Best of McSweeney's Humor Category". In it I came across the collection of jokes copied below, which I found really interesting.


A man walks into a bar. He has a few drinks and chats with the bartender.
Later that night, he goes home alone and reflects on the poor decisions he's made in life.

A Priest, a Minister, and a Rabbi are walking down the street. They discuss, together, the various traditions and beliefs of their different religions.
Each leaves with a greater respect for the other and a deeper understanding of the world.

A man goes to his doctor. The doctor tells him he's dying.
The man says, "I want a second opinion."
The doctor gives him the name and number of a specialist in the type of cancer with which the man has been diagnosed.

A gentleman is of polish descent. His heritage in not discernable to his neighbors and co-workers, save for the letters "ski" at the end of his surname.

A man and a woman are crossing the desert. They find a lamp in the sand. The man rubs the lamp and nothing happens. Afterward, he feels a bit foolish.

Why did the chicken cross the road?
Because the chicken lacks any reasoning or decision-making capabilities, it seems unlikely the chicken's action was spurred by any particular motivation.

A man died. What transpired after he passed the veil of death is beyond the knowledge of the living.

A man walks into a bar with a dog. He orders a drink.
The bartender says, "Hey, we don't let dogs in here!"
The man says, "But I'm blind, and this is my seeing eye dog. According to the Americans With Disabilities Act, you have to allow him into your establishment."
The bartender gives him his drink, which he consumes.

How many Polish people does it take to screw in a light bulb?
Two. One to hold the ladder, and the other to turn the light bulb in a clockwise fashion until it is secured in the socket.

Take my wife, please, as I can no longer afford to pay for a nurse to come and care for her on a daily basis.

What do you call a room full of lawyers?
A group of highly educated legal professionals.

How do you brainwash a blonde?
A rigorous schedule of psychologically breaking down their confidence and resistance to outside suggestion.

A man is driving down a country road at night when his car gets a flat tire.
He stops by a local farmhouse and asks the owner if he can stay there for the night.
"Sure," says the farmer. "As long as you don't touch my three beautiful daughters."
The man did as he was told, because frankly, he didn't find the girls nearly so attractive as their father seemed to.

I remember reading some theoretical books on humor a couple of years back, and although the poor people having written them would probably contend otherwise, it struck me that they pretty much agreed on this, namely that humor and jokes are expressed through the disruption of serious discourse. In other words, humor relies on the joint existence (as so many things do) of two polar opposites: The serious and the unserious, and thus comes into form when the latter enters and creates friction in the dominating, all-pervasive, serious one.

Both the "serious" and the "unserious" are of course tricky categories to deal with, but the reason why I came to think of it was that the jokes in the book were obviously twisting the whole thing a little on it's head. It's as if there are a number of antagonistic forces at play all at once, as opposed to the traditional two. First of all they were published in a humor book (i.e. "Best of McSweeney's Humor Category"), and the authors have adopted the traditional joke form (i.e. "bar jokes", "death jokes", "wife jokes", etc), so in that sense conventions are followed. And then again no, because McSweeney's per se has already established itself as some sort of counter-cultural anti-establishment kind of publication. And then again no again, because the authors disrupt the conventions of a traditional joke, in the sense that the jokes aren't what you expect them to be. They're quite serious...only that's the joke.

Or is it? I mean, it might be a joke, but is it really supposed to not be taken seriously? Like, when you say, "no, I was only joking"?

All these clever theoriticians that wrote about jokes and humor, also said, if I remember correctly, that there is often quite a bit of subversiveness embedded in a joke. When you make a joke about a blond, or a Jew, a rabbi or a minister, you are essentially using and disrupting the stereotypes which we tend to apply to said subjects.

Bakhtin, the 20th century Russian literary scholar, through his readings of Rabelais, likewise interpreted jokes, humor, the carnivalesque, and the grotesque - in short, all these things that are "unserious", or "over-the-top" and not "what you would expect" - as voices of the anti-establishment. Bahktin also says, and this is why I like him, that there are several voices present at once in any kind of utterance: simple and complex and contestant voices all at once. A cacophony of voices" if you will, the comprehensive audibility of which depends entirely on the mind of the hearer.

The farmer's joke, is one good example. The traditional joke would involve the man with the flat tire having to share the room with the farmer's daughter. A twist on that would involve that man having to share the room with the farmer's son, to which the man would react: "How about that, I'm in the wrong joke". Another twist on that is Farmer Joke no # 13, where it turns out the girls aren't beautiful. And maybe, just maybe, and depending on the twist of your mind, the real wolf sleeping among them is the farmer himself. And that's when I snicker and think: "Aaah, clever. It's funny cause it's true." Or it might be, in any case.

And now I realize I have completely lost track of the flicker of a point I wanted to make, but it revolved around Gawker () and snickering. Instead I give you nuns.

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