DRMacIver's Notebook

Learning how to tell a joke

Learning how to tell a joke

From page 10 of Ted Cohen’s “Jokes”:

Joking is a “two-stage” art, like music and theater. Someone must make up the joke, and someone must tell it, and these two jokers need not be the same. Those good at making up jokes are not the same as those good at telling them. Telling a joke well may require specific abilities, like being able to affect an Irish dialect, or it may require a subtle knack, like a sense of timing.

He goes on to say that this presentation is particularly important because some jokes don’t translate well onto the page, and illustrates this with the following joke that you are legally required to include in all books about philosophy of comedy or they take your license away:

Q: According to Freud, what comes between fear and sex?

A: Fünf.

Cohen is wrong here, this joke translates to the page just fine, because you can just read it out loud.

This routine on the other hand is an example of a joke that actually doesn’t translate to the page:

This both illustrates the strengths and the flaws of the two-stage art concept.

From a writing point of view, the joke isn’t very good, right? It’s perfectly well written, there’s nothing wrong with it, but as written it’s not funny, because the humour is entirely in the presentation. This is why it demonstrates the strength of the two stage model: it’s a very good illustration of the verbal skills of humour.

But it also demonstrates that the idea is something of a lie, in that you can’t actually separate this into two stages. It’s not just that the joke doesn’t work written down, it’s that there is no joke without the performance of it here.

This is, perhaps, an artefact of the fact that comedy isn’t really about telling jokes, it’s about performing routines, but I think this distinction doesn’t work, and you experience the same problems with hypercontextual jokes that cannot be extracted from their situation.

What instead is going on, I think, is that for any given joke there is a skill of telling that joke, and some jokes you can teach that skill in writing better than others.

Another interesting example of this sort of skill is poetry reading. Some poems work written, but this one I’ve linked to before in Start from amazing isn’t one of them:

The poem is good, but the presentation of it is very good, and the poem rests on the vocal skill of its delivery.

Back in You can’t write life down I talked about the difficulty in transcribing oral stories, and this feels like another aspect of that. At the time I talked about how taking a Raven story outside of its cultural context would lose essential features of the culture that created it, leaving it in a diminished and abstracted form, but actually I think the problem is deeper than that: You can write down a Raven story, but I’m not sure you can write down how to tell a Raven story.