Book review: Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes
WE KNOW Yorick was a fellow of infinite jest. But what exactly was his guaranteed surefire material? Did he slay them with one-liners, or did he stick to observational humour? Alas, we cannot know. But it seems fairly certain even melancholy Danes prized a choice punch line, like the Romans and the Greeks before them.
In Stop Me if You've Heard This, his wispy inquiry into the history and philosophy of jokes, Jim Holt offers up a choice one from ancient times. Talkative barber to customer: "How shall I cut your hair?" Customer: "In silence."
This comes from a Greek joke book compiled in the fourth century. Its 264 entries amount to an index of classical humour, with can't-miss material on such figures of fun as the miser, the drunk, the sex-starved woman and the man with bad breath. Let us not forget the "skolastikos", or egghead: "An egghead was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. 'Don't cry,' he consoled them. 'I have freed you all in my will'." Maybe you had to be there.
Holt combs through a number of obscure texts, ancient and modern, in his fast-moving, idiosyncratic survey of humour and its vagaries through the ages. Unfortunately, the 150-joke anthologies compiled by Melissus in the Augustan age disappeared, but the Renaissance humour of Poggio Bracciolini survived – proof that fat jokes and fart jokes never grow old – as did numerous Elizabethan jest books. In Much Ado About Nothing, Beatrice bristles at Benedick's accusation that her "good wit" comes straight from The Hundred Merry Tales. It's a joke book, just like the Georgian classic Joe Miller's Jests, a collection so popular that, before long, any stale joke was dismissed as "a Joe Miller".
Holt devotes loving attention to one of his modern-day heroes, Gershon Legman, the American compiler of an obsessively annotated 1968 smut fest with the alluring title Rationale of the Dirty Joke. For three decades, Legman collected humorous material ranging from the ribald and risque to the downright gross. Even more smutty stuff appeared in a second volume, No Laughing Matter, published in 1975.
Like Legman, Holt isn't really in it for the laughs. His goal is to find out why it is that language, arranged in a certain stylised form, causes a sneeze-like response. In other words, he follows the trail blazed by Robert Benchley in Why We Laugh – Or Do We?
Freud couldn't explain it, and Holt can't either. As his historical survey makes clear, jokes present a quickly moving target. Certain themes seem to be eternal, but others are not. Lettuce, probably because of its association with sexual potency (and its opposite), struck the Romans as hilarious.
The packaging changes, too. Tommy Cooper could have used the Greek barber joke, but would the quick-witted Beatrice have understood the meta-humour of deadpan American comedian Steven Wright, whose non-jokes rely on the audience's recognition that the standard joke format has been turned inside out?
In the end, Holt seems less interested in getting to the bottom of his subject than he is in getting to the end of his assignment. "Slight" would be too weighty a word for this soap bubble of a book. Even after being plumped out with illustrations, it barely qualifies as a stocking stuffer. Even worse, the jokes are feeble. "Skeleton walks into a bar and says, "Give me a beer and a mop." Funny, huh?
David Robinson, the Books Editor of The Scotsman, selects a book review every Monday.