Let us go into the circus. In the ring a man is sitting at a table. He has just eaten a banana and thrown the skin over his shoulder. A clown, dressed as a waiter and carrying a tray loaded with an enormous cream cake approaches the table. Anticipatory silence from the packed audience. Without looking down, the waiter's foot just misses the banana skin. Gasp from the audience. There is then some shouted dialog between the waiter and the diner, the diner saying he hadn't ordered the cake and waves the waiter away. The waiter steps backwards, but by a miracle his foot just misses the banana skin again. Another gasp from the audience, even the children reduced to a tense wide-eyed silence. This happens once or twice more until the waiter, apparently realizing the effect he is having on the audience, reveals he is perfectly aware of the banana skin and starts hamming it up, poising his foot just over the skin then stepping aside. Audience starts to laugh relievedly. Finally the waiter, far away from the banana and now ostentatiously over-confident, trips over his own feet and falls over the table thickly covering himself, the diner and the table with cream pie. End of scene. Hysterical laughter in the audience, even from the parents (who may however be glad that none of their sophisticated friends can see them).
What we are observing is a manifestation of "Humour". The
purpose of this Essay is to try and find what humour is, how does it originate and does it serve any useful purpose.
What the dictionary says:
"Wit, humour, repartee, sarcasm, irony. These nouns, related but not interchangeable, are compared as they denote forms of expression. Wit especially implies mental keenness, ability to discern those elements of a situation or condition that relate to what is comic, and talent for making an effective comment on them. Humour, closely related, suggests the ability to recognize the incongruity and absurdity inherent in life and to use them as the basis of expression in some medium. Both wit and humour are associated with amusement and laughter, but wit often implies brilliant, pointed or cutting statement, whereas humour is also applicable to what is kindly or broadly funny. Repartee, or the exchange of wit, generally in conversation, implies facility in answering quickly and cleverly. Sarcasm is usually a form of wit intended to taunt, wound, or subject another to ridicule or contempt. Often it involves irony, a form of statement whose witty intent is contrary to and sometimes the opposite of, the literal meaning of the words employed. In this sense irony is often employed to point up mockingly the discrepancies between reality, with its shortcomings, and a more desirable state."
Actually what we have been observing in the sketch above is a very simple form of humour, one step away from pure slap-stick humour. ("Slap-stick. A paddle designed to produce a loud whacking sound, formerly used by actors in farces. Also a form of comedy marked by many chases, collisions, crude practical jokes and similar boisterous actions.")
The beginning - the Grin
To find where it all starts, let us go right to the beginning.
Two parents are bending over the cot of their 1 month old
offspring. They are baring their teeth at the child and the child (who has no teeth yet) is baring its gums back at the parents.
This baring of the teeth is the way humans indicate pleasure, reduce social tensions, indicate approval. Offhand it's not the obvious choice, but it's the one we have made. It's called Grinning (not Smiling which will be discussed later). Parents and children may also make hee-haw noises at each other which we call "Laughter".
Babies grin and laugh when they are happy, and their fond parents grin back at them. This reciprocal grinning becomes iheir first communication. The parent reads it as "child happy" and therefore "child healthy". The child reads it as "parent happy" and if the parent is happy then the child feels secure. Furthermore parent grinning becomes associated with its main pleasure - food is about to be delivered.
As the child grows up it discovers another pleasure - the pleasure of finding the buttons that control its body.
For an example, a piece of hard data:
One morning my wife and I heard lots of laughter from the bedroom of my daughter, aged then about 1 year, and went to investigate. She was trying, all on her own, to stand up in her cot. With intense concentration she would grasp the cot rails and pull herself up, totter a few moments unsteadily and then collapse in fits of laughter. She was exploring her body and obviously surprised and pleased to find that it was made to be stood up in.
To find out what she was doing more generally and more exactly, we must remember that the human brain is a very large number of switches or "neurones" and when we learn something we wire these neurons up in a complex network. When we want to perform that action or think that thought again, we just have to send an electric current down that "learnt" network. But many networks have been "pre-wired" for us. Some are to do with simple survival routines and come into action at birth, before we have learnt to program our brain ourselves. (Try holding a sleeping baby's nose - it will show a quite unexpected agility in pulling its head away). Other prewired networks are discovered by the child as it grows up, sometimes with the help of the parents.
Another example. While a baby is lying down its legs have no obvious use. The baby knows they are there and can move them, but that's all. But parents know what legs are for, and before the child is very old it is being unwillingly supported on these rubbery useless extensions of its body and incomprehensibly urged to do something. After a while its own brain is also telling it to "walk across the room" but it hasn't the faintest idea how. And if you consider the number of muscles involved, the need to take the load on a stiffened leg, to transfer the weight to the other extended leg without losing balance, walking is an incredibly complicated manoeuvre. But spurred by parents and its own brain the child takes an uncertain step - and a miracle occurs! It suddenly finds that a whole part of its brain has already been wired up to perform this complicated operation. The wiring is a bit gummed together to start with, like a new-born butterfly's wings, but it soon unwraps and the child begins to feel a whole section of its body come alive. The legs were obviously placed and designed for walking and the circuits to control them are all prewired. Whole sections of the child's brain, whose purpose was previously unknown, suddenly lights up and clicks together and join up to make a whole. It must be a mind-blowing surprise, a break-through, an insight, one of the strongest the child will ever experience. And it is accompanied by mutual delighted grins on the faces of the child and the doting parents. The event may well end up in the family photo album under "First Steps".
(Yes, OK, this is a simplification - I know the child actually learns to crawl before it tries to walk)
- the child instinctively knows or learns from its parents that laughter is connected with approval and pleasure.
- the child learns to laugh itself when it feels pleasure.
- the child feels surprise and pleasure and therefore laughs when it "opens up" a new part of its brain.
This subject has been covered in "The Brain - Thinking" but briefly we store data in our brain in a completely different way to our computers. We have an "associative" memory. Insight occurs when two or more networks, corresponding to two ideas or pieces of information and previously not associated, suddenly join up in our brains. An example:
Your hobby is chess and so you are very accustomed to see the patterns made by the pieces on the chess board. You normally "switch-off" after a game and don't use that part of your brain in your every-day life. But one day you go with a chess-playing friend to a football match and suddenly you both start to see the players as pieces on a chess-board, with pieces covering each other and a goal being the equivalent of a pawn making queen. It gives you a whole new view-point. Physically the two complex networks containing your knowledge of chess and football have joined together or become associated. You have had "insight" and you may laugh with pleasure at the surprise, as you make further comparisons to each other.
"Having insight" is a wonderful intellectual feeling. You know your brain has just expanded. A whole lot of apparently random data that you had painfully collected over time suddenly drops into a pattern and become associated. You can now forget the data and remember just the pattern. A really strong insight is like a chain-reaction: you admire the first pattern for an instant then suddenly realize it is similar to other patterns you already know and with a shock all these patterns become part of a yet greater pattern.
My argument is that "having insight" is very similar to the feeling of surprise you had as a child when you suddenly discovered what part of your brain was for. It gave pleasure then, the pleasure made you laugh and it has the same effect now.
Now insight, which is the sudden joining together or "sparking over" of two pieces of brain tissue, can occur in two general ways. Either you can discover the path spontaneously yourself, or someone can show it to you. In the examples above, my daughter had obviously discovered something herself, whereas in the second "learning to walk" example the parents are slightly nudging the child to make the connection. A "taught" insight can be imagined as someone making you construct paths in your brain to bring the two parts closer and closer and then suddenly, "snap", there is a spark-over, you have the insight, the sudden surprise, and may laugh.
The outright laugh is not often seen. More often is a sudden involuntary compression of the diaphragm, giving rise to a "snort".
In the U-Bahn the other day I was sitting by a grumpy looking Bavarian and opposite us was black passenger. Just then the ticket inspectors walked down the coach and we showed our tickets. But the black passenger didn't have one and was taken off the train by the inspectors. "Ein Schwarzfahrer" I said to the Bavarian, who could not prevent himself from snorting in surprise. (The German word means literally a "black (or illegal) passenger"). He had evidently never thought that a passenger could be "schwarz" in two senses.
But if I told some of my student friends how "fundamentally human" (say) Mrs. Thatcher was, I would get a similar snort, this time of derision. Why is this? I think this shows that the snort is a reaction of surprise. Surprise that two concepts, normally not connected in that person's brain are suddenly brought together or associated. Surprise as well, in this case, that anyone could associate them.
I think laughter is a succession of snorts, each snort produced by the burst of small surprises which follow the first main surprise. As though we are saying to ourselves "Gosh, that can't be true. Snort. Let me check the data in my brain. Yes it is true. Snort. I didn't think of that. Snort. I'll just check again. Yes, incredible. Snort. But that must mean .. Snort. And that's true too ... Snort". A really good surprise which associates a lot of things (which it also pleases you to associate) can result in a "belly laugh". Har! Har! Har!
We don't experience many snorts, let alone laughs, in our sophisticated adult life, for the reason that most of the ideas in our brain have already been associated at some time or another. To find surprises in our brain we have to look for parts which are far apart, are not yet associated. We join these parts together in little artificial playlets called "Jokes". And of course once the two pieces have been associated in a satisfactory surprise, they will not produce that effect again - we have heard that joke.
Smiling and grinning
We found out at the beginning of this Essay that baring the teeth is the way humans indicate pleasure, reduce social tensions, indicate approval. We do it in two ways:
The Smile. This is a conscious gesture and has nothing to do with humour. It only concerns the muscles of the mouth and doesn't extend to the eyes. Smiling is merely a polite gesture indicating approval or pleasure - in other words it reduces possible social tension. Our literature is full of such expressions such as "he smiled disarmingly" or "the smile on his face took the sting from his words". We smile to show we feel friendly and non-aggressive. People smile politely at each other when they cross on a footpath.
In the infinitely complex human inter-reactions the smile may be "smiled" from a position of strength ("he smiled confidently" or "condescendingly") . Or if not sure of his reception he may "smile uncertainly". Under certain conditions it must be used with caution as it can have other interpretations ("she smiled at him invitingly").
The Grin. This resembles the smile but is a twitching of the lips and is uncontrollable. It always extends to the eyes. It is our reaction to something we find amusing. This difference is shown in that we can have an "infectious grin" but never an "infectious smile".
No discussion on Humour would be complete without some words on "taboos".
The act of "thinking" is the sending of a current though various networks in our brain, and an insight is when we find an unexpected connection or association. But there are connections or associations which we don't or shouldn't make. They have been discovered by the child who has perhaps gone down them once but then the parents have posted "no entry" signs on them. Apart from the obvious ones concerned with making the child a civilized human being and guarding its safety, each young child will have a different set of no-entry signs. An example would be when the child first picks up an expensive glass vase and grins self-approvingly. The parent replies with a definite "no grin", several loud noises and rapid body movements. The child is surprised with the reaction it has had for such a small outlay of energy and initially files it away as a good way of attracting attention. But then it is made to realize that it has done something "wrong". A new word, signifying the opposite of approval. If it goes down that path again it will get the same attention but this will have to be balanced off against some sort of punishment.
The child continues mentally and physically to expand into its environment, and learns lots of "rights" and "wrongs". The "wrongs", in spite of the glass vase example above, are usually rules to prevent the child hurting itself - any parent would be foolish to leave expensive glass ornaments within reach of a child. (It is not generally realized that the wall of "do's" and "don'ts" with which the parents surround their child is not only to stop the child getting out into the dangerous world but also to prevent the dangerous world getting in. But the child is perfectly aware of this. It is why a child will, keeping an eye on the parent, go up to (say) the house door and put its hand on the door-knob as though to open the door. If the parent says "no", the child will remove its hand satisfied. It has touched the "wall", and the wall is still there protecting it. For this reason child psychologists like Spock say that a parent should think very carefully before it says "no" to a child, but once said, it should be maintained. Consistency is everything.)
But the child finds quickly that doing something "right", like making a complex crayon pattern on a piece of paper may get a vague smile and "That's nice, dear", but doing something "wrong" produces a much more dramatic reaction. Unfortunately wrong things can only be done once. Then the child finds that the dramatic reaction can be provoked without the punishment that follows, if it just pretends to do the wrong thing. Just wandering near the wall-paper ostentatiously holding a crayon will produce a very satisfactory response.
If the child is basically sure of the reaction and affection of its parents, it can have a lot of fun by going as "close to the wind" as possible, without actually committing a crime. It can become quite a subtle game. When my daughter was 4 years old we had an act where she would climb onto my shoulders as I sat reading in an armchair. I remember she was wearing loose red woolly socks. I would grab her ankles and sternly tell her how naughty she was to climb on Daddy's shoulders when he was trying to read his important papers and as a punishment he was going to hold her prisoner and stop her getting away. But by not holding her too tightly she was able to slip her feet out of the socks and scramble down the back of the chair. Holding the empty socks tightly I would now proclaim to the world that I had got her fast and she couldn't escape and that would teach her not to disturb Daddy. She would then run around the chair and stand in front of me, flaunting herself and waving her arms. I would look from her to the empty socks I was holding with exaggerated surprise and she would go into fits of laughter. In fact it is the first time I had ever seen anyone actually slapping their thigh with hilarity.
I think that what she was actually doing was taking advantage of being allowed for a short time to be a "court jester" and mock the "father figure". Nor was the "mother figure" exempt. She would cheekily and accurately imitate my wife putting on lipstick which would amuse me and disconcert my wife. My wife didn't really like this little monkey imitating her, especially before visitors, but she couldn't really forbid it.
So as the child grows up the number of paths increases and the number of "no entry" signs too, this time placed not by the parents but by the society they live in. Some of the no-entry signs are absolute ("thou shalt not kill"), others are less stringent ("thou shalt not speak with a common accent"). Going down forbidden paths means doing or saying things which are against authority or not socially acceptable. Just going near to these paths increases social tension. Breaking a taboo is not amusing on its own but getting near to it can powerfully enhance the effect of a joke, which remember is a surprise association. How often does a joke begin:
Joke teller (lowering voice and looking over shoulder) "Did you hear the one about the Pope and the pregnant Lesbian when they met in the zoo?"
He hasn't said anything funny yet, but he's got our attention and we expect something really weird (an unusual association).
Forbidden "Forbidden paths"
What is forbidden varies widely over different nationalities and social groupings. Sex, being forbidden and pleasant at the same time, is always acceptable. "Lavatory" jokes are looked on as childish - which is clinically true.
"Really" forbidden associations are said to be in "bad taste" and are to do with subjects deeply felt by the listener such as cancer, religion, blindness, mental illness, death and suffering generally.
You need to be quite sure of your audience when you use forbidden paths to enhance your jokes. There is for instance the concept of male "honour". Few men like to hear jokes about their own country or group. Nor do Anglo-Saxons usually like to have their women-folk hear "dirty" jokes (they are supposed to be protecting them).
Rules of Humour
When you are a child you learn that there are some things that will reliably make your parents laugh - any remark that refers to Aunt Mary's nose, or the simpleness and avarice of Mr Smith who lives opposite.
These "family jokes" must be cast in a certain mould, going near certain forbidden paths and avoiding others. Repeating or alluding to family jokes reminds the listeners that they are all in the same family and reinforces group identity. Imaginative members of the family will invent new combinations (associations) and create new jokes. Non-members of the family will find the "jokes" quite incomprehensible, but if they live with that family for a while they will gradually learn what the family thinks is funny and if they have imaginative (associative) minds will be able to make family jokes of their own.
As with learning the rules for humour, the actual use of humour is very variable, and must be learnt. If you work in a German company you will find everyone is very formal (calling each other Herr or Doktor) and phlegmatic. If you make a joke, commenting on the weather perhaps, there will be a pause while someone identifies your remark as a "joke", and then they will all smile politely. Or possibly, as you are a foreigner, someone else will explain to you that such weather conditions are due to a low pressure over ... and are to be expected at this time of the year. If you persist in making humorous remarks at work they will patiently wait for you to finish before they bring the conversation back to the matter in hand. Obviously humour is not needed and is just seen as a pointless waste of time.
The Germans regard a humorist the same way the British would regard a man who is always cracking jokes at work. If he was very good, people would laugh at him at first but gradually he would become an irritation, a clown ("Can't you be serious for once?").
It is very interesting to see how people adapt to different societies. I have known Germans who have lived a long time in France and have mastered the French sense of humour enough to make Frenchmen laugh. On the other hand I know Britons who have lived a long time in Germany and have "become serious". Make little witticisms and humorous asides and they will merely patiently wait until you have finished. Interestingly enough, this loss of a sense of humour goes with a deepening of the voice, another sign of the generally light-voiced Briton adapting to the bass-voiced Germans.
Need for humour
To resume then, laughter, that strange hee-hawing noise we make, is an extreme form of grinning, and needs an actual insight type of arc-over in the brain to initiate it. We don't laugh outright very often - we need specially constructed artificial set-piece situations to trigger it. Much more common is the grin. But before we go into how we make, or try to make people grin, let us look at why we should want to do this.
The first reason may be necessity:
Democracy = sense of humour
It's a hypothesis of mine that Democracy has found its strongest roots in societies of mixed races. For the very simple reason that on any important decision everyone is going to have a different opinion and the only way to get anything done is to count heads. It's a terrible method. England was one of the first to accept Democracy because England was such a aggressive mish-mash of Celts, Saxons, Danes etc. And humour must also have developed at the same time as a way of getting them to tolerate each other. We still all live together in England, with much inter-marriage, so it worked, which is why we have a sense of humour.
Contrast this with a country with a homogeneous population such as we have in the Nordic countries or Japan. They will all feel more-or-less the same on any issue and so they leave the decision to an Expert. Democracy and therefore humour not needed. Such countries, freed from having to make time-wasting jokes all the time, are very work oriented and productive.
(Switzerland - with democracy, four races and a noted lack of humour, was suggested to me as an exception to this hypothesis. But then each race there has its own language and therefore lives fairly separate lives. Important negotiations between the four races must be done by well-educated and rational politicians. Down the centuries the Swiss have had to learn to live with each other or be absorbed by their powerful neighbours).
Humour oils society
Humour acts as a social "oil".
A smile may not necessarily trigger a smile in return and so defuse a tense social situation, so we try a bit harder and introduce humour to "lighten" the situation. Just telling a joke is too obvious - one might as well wear a red nose. So we behave in a "humorous" manner. For example:
John arrives rather late at a dinner. Anyone else would have mumbled an excuse and sat down at the end of the table. But John is a humorist. He bustles up to the table, holds his hands out horizontally palms down and says "No, no, please don't all get up". There are a few smiles, some rather thin-lipped, perhaps a grin - but no one laughs. One girl says indignantly to her neighbour that she hasn't the slightest intention of getting up. John gets a chair from another table and pushes in next to the host.
It's not a joke, it's only marginally humorous. It's just John's way of getting over an embarrassing moment by pretending that he is a famous personage.
And once a sense of humour has been developed as a necessary tool, it finds its second use - as a pastime. This quite often happens: eating has become Haute Cuisine, sex has become Eroticism, picture making has become Art.
We call the person who has a strong active sense of humour a Humorist. He is a person who wants to show off his skill and be rewarded by a grin or even laughter. The Humorist is an Artist. He is bored by simple data transfer, he wants to embellish the signal a bit, to make it more colourful. In the same way an artist doesn't like bare walls, functional furniture or living accommodation, the Humorist doesn't like solemn faces, long serious conversations. He wants to liven things up a bit. Instead of saying "I was sitting on my chair typing into my word-processor" he would say "There was I, perched on my stool pecking away at the keyboard". It gives the image of some sort of bird, especially if he makes downward jabbing motions with two fingers.
He is the sort of person who recognizes the dilemma, the incongruity of the science reporter who had to dig his car out of the snow one icy morning and get a friend to help him push it to start it. Arriving at last in a filthy temper at the studio where he has to make a broadcast, he finds the pipes of the heating system have burst and has to have a blanket over his shoulders as he shiveringly sits in front of the microphone giving his talk on - "Global Warming".
Most of the time the Humorist goes through life seeing and commenting with a light touch. In the same way that most people can appreciate art and some even create it, most people can appreciate humour and a few even create it. But apart from the witty on-going ad-lib comments that humorists are expected to provide at suitable moments, humorists will also have a stock of set-piece Jokes.
Humour and humorists are given a high position in Anglo-Saxon society. They have their own columns in the press and their own radio and TV shows. In England we send them to our most revered and august University. Any ex-graduate who has appeared in a Cambridge Review is assured of a successful life in the national entertainment industry.
Whereas in Germany, or at least Bavaria, humorists are so thin on the ground that they actually have a museum to one in the centre of Munich! Valentin was his name and his act rather like early Buster Keaton.
How humour affects our character
A person who has developed a sense of humour and uses it in day-to-day life, will (in a society that uses/needs humour) inevitably sometimes be on the receiving end of a joke. If he doesn't like this, and few of us like ridicule, he will be forced to look at himself, his outside appearance, the things he says. He will try to strike a balance between dignity and wittiness. This varies with the company he keeps of course. Amongst friends (those he knows will not ridicule him for many reasons, such as knowing his "real worth") he can relax, wear a red nose, make terrible puns etc. But amongst strangers he has to be much more careful, especially if he is trying to impress them with his sincerity, and general "soundness". He can only too easily imagine jokes made by others with him as subject and so he tries to avoid them in advance.
This has the very important spin-off that a person who has a sense of humour is a person who can look at himself "can see himself as others see him". In engineering terms, he can apply feedback to himself.
This can be negative feedback which will damp down his excess behaviour, acting as a built-in Devil's Advocate. Or it can be positive feedback which will tell him when people approve of his behaviour and spur him to behave even better.
In England's moment of glory on the world stage we not only taught half the world's population to speak English, but to a certain extent to "think" English too, which includes having a sense of humour. I am sure this is one of the reasons we still have a Commonwealth relation with our ex-Empire. Contrast this with the French and Dutch colonies - Algeria and the Dutch East Indies took the first opportunity available to get away from their ex-masters and fought violently for their freedom. The Russian colonies are repeating this.
Those with no sense of humour
Think now of a person living in a "humorous" society but who himself has no sense of humour. He cannot imagine how he appears to others and if he is to avoid being the subject of ridicule he must carefully watch how other people dress/behave and imitate them. He can permit himself no fantasy. At the same time, fearing ridicule, he may cultivate an aggressive personality, threatening physical violence to anyone who ridicules him. It's his only answer.
Note carefully that what such a person fears is observant Humorists with an irreverent sense of humour. But if there are none around, if he lives in a society free of these pests, he can live a "normal" life. Such a person is most at home in the homogeneous societies that we have in Northern Europe or Japan.
Jokes are short humorous plays. Related by one person, they usually place the various actors in a complicated and unusual situation which is resolved in an unusual and surprising way.
You might think that a joke or a cartoon is just an amusing situation to make you laugh, or perhaps show you an unusual viewpoint of something. And a lot of them are, of course. Those to do with animals, for instance. But most jokes have a "message". They show someone, some people, some type of person to have a certain character-trait - stupid, mean, brave, cowardly ...eg. Scotsmen are supposed to be economical ("The place was as deserted as Glasgow on a flag-day.").
Reactions to jokes
For this reason it is not surprising that some people on hearing a certain joke will determinedly not laugh. Others will not laugh at any of your jokes, even completely neutral ones. They may say they have heard it before, or know a better one. It almost appears as though they are jealous of the popular witty joke teller and refuse to support him. Laughing at a joke seems to be not only to be approving the "message" behind the joke but somehow also approving of the joke teller. Laughing at his jokes is seen as helping to increase his popularity.
In Potter's "Gamesmanship" book there is even a recommended way of putting down a joke-teller and so becoming "one up". The joke-teller is pictured as leaning on the mantel-piece at a party, glass in hand, relating one witty joke after the other and surrounded by a laughing crowd. The "Gamesman" should enter quietly and sit on a stool at his feet. To start with he laughs at all the jokes. But sooner or later a joke will be related about a man with one leg. The Gamesman too will laugh loudly and then climb to his feet and hobble out of the room on his obviously artificial leg.
When to tell a joke
During a normal lively conversation a Humorist will often be reminded of a good joke and may think of telling it. It's usually a bad idea.
If the Humorist is well-known, the group will politely allow him to tell his joke and will laugh. But there is always a terrible "hole" after a joke has been told, as occurs when the television is switched off. The joke has broken the free association that everyone was using to maintain the conversation and now they have to start again. The Humorist may now seize on this hole to relate another and another joke. This can quickly become boring to the more active members of the group who didn't join it just to provide an audience. They will either drift away or relate a joke of their own and it can quickly becomes a sort of contest.
The best time to tell a "formal" joke is at the beginning or end of a meeting. A speaker at a conference will often tell a short joke at the beginning of his speech to "loosen things up". Another good time is just as a party is breaking up - "leave them laughing".
Now let us analyse and attempt to classify some jokes. Note that these jokes are some of the best I know but they appear much less amusing when pulled apart in analysis. I suggest that at the end of this paper you read the jokes again and this time jump over the analysis.
A old lady goes up to the gorilla cage in the zoo and gives the gorilla a peach. The gorilla takes the peach, sniffs at it suspiciously then sticking his fingers into it pulls out the stone. Reaching behind himself he pushes it into his bottom. Then he pulls the stone out of his bottom, puts it back into the peach, and eats the peach with evident enjoyment. The little old lady regards all this with fascinated disgust and turns to the nearby keeper.
"How absolutely revolting! How can you permit your charge to behave in such a scandalous manner before the general public? And what possible excuse can this animal have for behaving in such an unnatural manner?"
"Ah," said the keeper, "It's very simple. Jimmy here is a wise old gorilla. He remembers that a nice lady, just like you, once gave him a peach with a stone that was almost too big to pass. Very painful it was".
(So now he checks before).
Note the build-up of tension (translation - `watch out, there is going to be a spark any moment, get ready!) followed by the snap of the spark. Notice also that the actual "spark-over" is not included in this joke - the two pieces of the joke are pushed closely together and the spark occurs spontaneously. This is a way of increasing the size of the spark (as in physics, too!) and gives the listener a stronger sense of "discovered it myself" insight.
The "forbidden path" here is obscenity, but it is treated clinically.
Unfortunately spark-over doesn't occur with some people and the joke has to be explained. In other words the two pieces of the joke have to be pushed together even closer for them and, as to be expected, there is only a small spark.
("Oh, I see. I don't think that's very funny.")
Two Victorian explorers are hacking their way through the jungle in deepest Africa, followed by a train of bearers.
"God, George, but it's hot here" says Percy, pulling off his topee and wiping his forehead.
"Indeed it is" replies George. "But look - isn't that a river ahead?"
It is. They arrive at the river bank and sit down with relief, dangling their legs in the cool water.
"Ah, that's wonderful, isn't it, Percy?"
"It certainly is, George".
But after a while:
"I say, George."
"A crocodile has just bitten off one of my legs."
"Really, Percy? Which one?"
There is a pause while Percy looks out across the river.
Let us pause here a moment too. A rather odd situation has developed. Two men, caricatures of English gentlemen, are exchanging polite club-type conversation in the middle of darkest Africa. Two parts of your brain, not normally connected (ultra-civilized conversation and the wilderness) are brought together. There is a slight tension between them, enough to make one grin, but no spark is expected in this exaggeratedly foppish conversation. But you are hearing a joke so you know there is going to be a spark. Where will it come from? You wait, slightly cringing, and then Percy's answer:
"I'm damned if I know, George. All these bloody crocodiles look the same to me."
Pow. A spark from an unexpected direction, using an alternative answer to the question. And quite in character with these two grotesquely stoical Englishmen, one politely curious, the other merely irritated that he can't satisfy his friend's curiosity.
But this joke, harmless though it may seem, is disliked by some listeners, especially if related in a drawling English accent. It can be regarded as indirectly praising a certain type of upper-class, public-school educated intrepid English gentleman. (The sort of Battle of Britain pilot imagined by Walter Mitty. Someone pointed to his arm and asked if he was wounded. "Oh, that?" he answered, "Just a scratch. I set it myself.")
Middle-class English, Germans, French and Americans find the joke funny and will laugh almost affectionately. Irish, Scots and working-class English will not laugh and will quickly relate a joke of their own.
Which just goes to show that as in any human interaction, there are all sorts of hidden "messages" in jokes. As in:
During the war a German pilot was shot down and landed badly wounded in England. His left arm had to be immediately amputated. After the operation the pilot asked that his arm be sent to Germany where it could be buried. Moved by this love of the Fatherland, the authorities readily agreed and the arm was parachuted onto his home airfield.
Unfortunately gangrene had set in the other arm which also had to be amputated. Again the pilot requested the arm be returned to the Fatherland and after a short delay permission was received from the Air Ministry and again the arm was parachuted into Germany.
But the pilot had really been badly wounded and in spite of the most devoted care, his right leg had to be amputated. As expected, he again weakly requested it to be returned to Germany and again permission was requested. Almost immediately the reply came back from the Air Ministry:
"Permission refused. Guard this enemy pilot carefully. He is trying to escape".
The tension starts to rise here with mention of amputation.
Curiosity increases concentration/tension when the pilot uses an exaggeration of the convention that the dead should be buried in the land of their birth. This is used again and again and curiosity mounts. And then from an unexpected direction comes the spark of an eccentric interpretation of the convention as another convention, the convention that it is the duty of captured soldiers to try to escape.
We also see here an example of "black humour" which is best defined as the casual treatment of anything to do with illness or especially death.
As this joke contains military elements like "duty", and "Fatherland", and implies admiration of the brave pilot who wants to be buried in the Land of his Birth, it is a "male" joke. Unamused feminists will raise their eyes to heaven at the mention of such stupid male conventions.
And now a joke with another "message":
A group of men, mostly French, are in a railway carriage, swapping jokes. After a while one of them announces:
"Now here is a Belgian joke!"
They grin in anticipation and sit forward in their seats. All except one man who sits up straight:
"I'll have you know I am Belgian."
The man about to tell the joke is visibly disconcerted and rubs his chin.
"Ah, a Belgian," he mutters.
Hold the action a moment. This is a one of the many racist jokes. All countries think that members of some other country are simple. English the Irish, Americans the Poles or Swedes, Israelis the Arabs, Germans the East Friesians, North Germans the Bavarians etc. And French and Dutch the Belgians.
The story-teller is in jam. He has dropped a social "clanger" - he has essentially said "All Belgians are stupid" in the presence of a Belgian. How can he extricate himself except by apologizing profusely? And no excuse will suffice really, because the Belgian knows the French think all of his compatriots are simple. What the Frenchman has done is to tactlessly bring this fact to the attention of the others in the carriage. But his reply to the irritated Belgian:
"I'll tell you what," he offers finally. "I'll explain it to you afterwards."
Zap. Suddenly all the dialog must be re-interpreted. The story-teller sees the Belgian's irritation not with being cast as a member of a race of simpletons, but rather as someone who, admitting he is a simple Belgian, complains that he will not understand the forthcoming joke. The story-teller is embarrassed, not with the social gaffe he has just made (which indeed he is apparently unaware of), but with the problem of having a member of the audience who won't understand his joke.
It takes longer to explain the joke than it does to relate it, but two points are illustrated. First, the listener has to be aware that Belgians are considered simple and second he must be able to appreciate the social tension - he has to completely understand the problem before he can appreciate the weird "solution", which in this case consists of ignoring the obvious problem and solving another imaginary problem.
Use of racist jokes
You might now be wondering where and how such racist jokes help to bind a diverse society. Well, if you are fighting the Argentinians and your allies are the Patagonians, you surely don't go around telling jokes against the Patagonians ("Did you know all Patagonian tanks have four gears? One forward and three reverse.") Rather you tell such jokes to the Patagonians against the Argentineans to bind you to your allies. As with most devices, humour is a two-edged sword and you must choose the edge to match the target.
The next example is also a "re-interpretation" joke.
A man is sitting in a restaurant drinking a glass of wine when he notices an attractive young lady at a nearby table smiling at him invitingly. Surprised, he looks over his shoulder to check that she is not smiling at someone behind him, then shyly smiles back. Calling the waiter over he orders an extra glass of wine which he carries over to her. But no sooner has he sat at her table and introduced himself that she says in a sharp affronted voice: "What? Of course not!"
Sudden silence in the restaurant, eyes swivelling towards him. Thinking he had been misunderstood. He starts again:
"Look, I think you must have misheard me. I really would just like offer you a glass of wine, I just thought ..."
"No, certainly not! Disgusting! Please leave my table!" she says loudly.
Consternation in the restaurant, people standing up at the back to see the cause of the disturbance. The waiter rushes up and stands undecided whether to throw this bum out.
Cringing and blushing with shame he creeps back to his own table, hearing whispers and feeling himself the target of condemnatory eyes. He sits moodily sipping his wine, while the restaurant gradually returns to normal.
After about 10 minutes he is very surprised to see the beautiful young lady appear and take a place at his table.
"I'm sorry I embarrassed you just now, but you see I'm a psychologist and I am collecting data for a Paper on stress reactions." She smiles at him winningly.
He looks at her thoughtfully, then stands up.
Hold. The man discovers the woman has just coldly used her sex to make a complete fool of him. And that in front of the other customers in the restaurant, who are all looking at him as an inopportune lecher who quite rightly has been put down by this obviously clean-living girl. His simple honest feelings have been cynically manipulated by this spoilt pretty scientist who obviously thinks her explanation will be instantly understood and accepted. After all he will have the honour of becoming a statistic in her forthcoming book. What can he do except gruffly accept her casual apology? He looks at her and now sees there was never any chance of him making it with her.
"What!" he shouts loudly, "A hundred dollars?!"
There are a number of components. First a compliment to the listener who is assumed to be clever enough to have worked out that the man had been made out to be a lecher, which is bad but excusable, whereas the women has now been revealed as a prostitute - much worse. In other words "the biter bit". There is quite a bit of male chauvinism in this joke, in that a male hearing this joke would be pleased to find a man, initially deceived by feminine wiles, using the same weapon to get his own back. Women are less amused.
The disadvantage to this joke is that it is a bit "cerebral". The "spark" for slow thinkers is delayed, or doesn't occur at all if they can't play back the forgoing dialog.
And now for a completely different type of joke:
This is the story of Garge and his mare Doris. Each year Garge and his mare entered the Littlehampton ploughing contest and every year they won by universal acclaim.
But one year, during the run-up to the championship, Doris was pulling the plough, finely responsive to Garge's every touch and covering the field with beautiful mathematically straight furrows. The team seemed well on their way to winning again. But suddenly Doris went crazy, weaving all over the place, not responding to control and making a terrible hash of the field. In horror Garge dropped the reins and going forward pulled the horse's blinkers apart and there to his amazement, Doris's eyes were completely crossed. He shouted to his wife who phoned the vet.
The vet, who was very busy, asked Garge's wife to describe the symptoms. "Ah, yes, a clear case of Plodoshink." To save time he asked Garge's wife to prepare a yard of 1" diameter rubber tubing, "..and I will come immediately."
Rather surprised, Garge's wife prepared the tubing and an hour or so later the vet arrived in his Range Rover. He examined the tubing then walked onto the field where the dejected Garge was standing by Doris and the plough. The vet took one look at Doris and then told Garge to hold the horse's head. He took the piece of rubber tubing, put one end into the horse's rear and then applying his lips to the other end, blew a short blast.
To Garge's amazement, Doris's eyes immediately uncrossed!
Because of the special conditions, the judges allowed Garge to restart the test which he did, this time covering the field with faultless furrows. And ultimately he went on to win the championship, as usual.
The next year, this time during the semi-finals, Doris succumbed to the same ailment. Garge signalled his watching wife and told her to call the vet. She was just about to leave when he recollected that the vet had charged 20 guineas for his last visit. So he quickly called her back and asked her to prepare instead a yard of 1" rubber tubing. When it arrived he stuck one end in Doris's bottom, as he had seen the vet do, and then blew sharply into the other. He then went round confidently to the front of the horse - but Doris's eyes were still crossed! He repeated the treatment several times, but the horse's eyes remained persistently crossed. Finally he was obliged to get his wife to call the vet. When the vet arrived, Garge rather embarrassedly admitted that he had tried the treatment that the vet applied the last year, but to no effect.
The vet said nothing, but merely took the piece of tubing in his hands and asked Garge to describe exactly what he had done. Garge explained that he had put that end in the horse's rear and had blown down this end.
The vet took the piece of tubing in his hands and carefully reversed the ends. Then he inserted the tube into the horse's bottom and blew sharply down the other end.
Immediately Doris's eyes straightened!
Garge was amazed and chagrined. He couldn't see what he had done wrong.
"But that's exactly what I did .. how can it make any difference ...why did you reverse the tube?.. What difference can it make?"
The vet looked coldly at Garge.
"Surely you don't expect me to put the same end of the tube in my mouth as you had in yours, do you?" he said.
This is an example of what used to be called a "Shaggy Dog" story, perhaps because the first of it's type was about a shaggy dog. It can go on for hours, and is really a vehicle for a skilful story-teller to add lots of amusing details, remarks and sub-jokes which he invents as he goes on. Its humour (like all of its genre) depends very much on the teller and the slow build-up to what should be an amazing and witty denunciation, but is instead a barely satisfying explanation.
I once came across an interesting "visual" pun in a spy film.
The hero was at the race-course, binoculars around his neck and carrying one of those sticks that fold out at one end to make a seat. He was recognized and chased by one of the "other side". Cornered he lifted up the stick he was carrying and pointed it his pursuer. Smoke and flame appeared from the end and the baddie went down. The seat was also a concealed gun.
All good stuff but on the way home from the cinema, something was bugging me. There had been something about that stick/seat the hero had been carrying. What the hell was it called? And then suddenly I remembered. A shooting-stick!
It is the breeding season and two unwilling female ostriches are being hotly pursued by two overheated male ostriches. The two female ostriches look back fearfully over their shoulders - they are running as fast as they can, but the male ostriches are getting closer and closer. Suddenly, without a word being spoken, the two female ostriches stop and simultaneously stick their heads in the sand.
Immediately the two following male ostriches jam on their brakes and look around blankly. They look at each other.
"Where on earth did those two girls disappear to?" says one in angry bafflement.
Ah, a little more subtle. To appreciate this joke you must be completely familiar with the fact (?) that ostriches in moments of danger hide their heads in the sand, on the principle that `if I can't see my enemy then my enemy can't see me.' Ridiculous to humans of course, but presumably not to ostriches, or they wouldn't do it. And if ostriches believe it, then by a sort of perverse logic ostriches must not be able to see anyone who has his head buried in the sand.
(Sorry about the analysis if you saw the joke, but to my surprise not everyone understands it).
A little bit of tension release (if related properly), possible human interest by identification with the birds and an unexpected solution - provided you know that ostriches in moments of danger ...
Notice that this joke gains a lot because the males are chasing the females ie. sex. If it was merely about some baby ostriches who were playing "hide and seek" it would just be "cute".
It is an observed fact that the females of a mixed group almost always laugh when a male tells a joke, even though they haven't understood it. It's part of their "Gatherer" or home-making function. Furthermore, females very rarely tell jokes in mixed company. I think there are two reasons for this:
- they instinctively don't want to compete with the male, preferring the passive role of an admiring audience.
- they can't compete with the male (like, alas, in so many other fields) because very few have a good (ie. male) sense of humour. Yes, it's a case of aggression again. Remember that humour was developed to smooth out eccentricities, and males in general are not afraid of being eccentric - indeed many go out of their way to cultivate it. Females are essentially conservative, cooperating rather than confronting. In brief, women don't need an "active" sense of humour and so haven't developed one. The more intelligent can appreciate male humour, in the same way that they can appreciate Art, but the actual creation of humour is left to the male.
A quick definition here. By "humour" I mean the more intellectual type of humour - wit, irony, satire. Because, apart from an expected appreciation of the "cute" things that children and young animals do, females do have a special type of humour, a type of humour usually greeted with a grimace and raised eyebrows by Anglo-Saxon males. I refer to sex jokes, and I mean the really "earthy" sex jokes, the ones completely uncontaminated with wit, the ones "that would make a monkey blush".
That this particular type of "forbidden path" joke is truly female receives confirmation from my experience in France, a country I have always thought of as being "female" - in contrast to "male" Germany. The Latins are much more uninhibited than the Anglo-Saxons. (They cannot believe that we do not have the same preoccupation with sex as they do, but think we are just more successful at hiding it. They call us "hypocrites").
You can be sitting in a restaurant in the Latin Quarter of Paris, not obviously filled with perverts, and some young man will come in with a guitar and toughly tell you to "hold on tight to your seats" as he is going to tell us something really "strong". He is obviously being proudly "macho". He will then sing the most amazingly obscene songs, not only about all the different variants of inter-species sex but also the effects of age, different types of virus and parasite infections on the sex organs. Everyone in the mixed gathering is amused, the females especially, their faces becoming red and their pupils widening, laughing delightedly as each new variant is revealed. They are certainly experiencing insight, to put it no lower.
[When caught in this sort of situation my only defence was to bring out a small French-English dictionary and after vainly looking up some word, request scholarly clarification from the eldest and most respectable-looking guest present. "Le morpion ou la morpion, Monsieur?" I would ask keenly. ("morpion = "pubic flea")]
It is really difficult to understand why normally fastidious and "well-brought up" females have a liking for brutally simple sex jokes. Is it because females with their short-sighted "Gatherer" vision are uninterested in the outer world and jokes involving “things"? Is it because they need to make themselves sexually attractive to the homecoming "Hunter" and are therefore much more interested in the theory and practice of sex? Or is it because they are much more concerned than males with the fundamentals of life - birth and death?
Whatever the reason, they fortunately only relate these jokes to other females.