DRMacIver's Notebook

Fewer than 100 thoughts on "Jokes"

Fewer than 100 thoughts on "Jokes"

This month is supposed to be reading month, and I'm not doing a very good job on reading new books, so I've been revisiting some old books instead. Unfortunately in order to get what I want out of this, I find myself in the position of having to do something that is anathema to my very nature: Taking notes on the books I read.

I'm rubbish at private writing, so I'm going to experiment with formats for doing that on here. How useful they'll be to anyone else, I don't know. Feel free to skip these.

Today's format experiment is that I'm going to try to write down 100 thoughts on Ted Cohen's book "Jokes: Philosophical thoughts on joking matters". I'll first do a linear scan through the book jotting down anything that I think of as I write it or exerpting any particularly insightful quotes, then I'll start sampling at random, and once that stops working I'll try to synthesize thoughts from further up the list.

100 may be ambitious (it's more than one thought per page in the book) but let's see how it goes.

  1. Page x (in the acknowledgements before the formal numbering). "James Lorie reminds us of the ster standard according to which no joke without obscenity is really a joke, and that a really fine joke is fit for any company". What is the actual relationship between obscenity and humour? Very few of the jokes in this book are actually obscene - a few are tasteless, but very few contain actual obscenities (even the jokes about sex are mostly PG!). There is clearly something distinctive about obscene humour, but obscenity seems inessential. It's possible I'm reading this line too literally.
  2. Also page x. "Nicholas Rudall is [...] one of those rare companions with whom one can work on a joke". This seems like an interesting experience that I mostly lack. I was wondering about the art of joke making, but maybe I should be focusing on the art of collaboration on a joke.
  3. Page 1. "The fact of jokes - the fact that there are such tings - is something of note, something worth thinking about."
  4. Page 3 "Many jokes are usefully thought of as solutions to problems that have been set" - notably though, they're problems with absurd solutions. A joke that will come up later is "What do Winnie the Pooh and Alexander the Great have in common?". This is a central example of such a problem-based joke, but the reason it is a joke is that it is designed to break you out of the normal logic that you would use to address such a question. A joke that is a problem is a joke that is designed to remind you that your normal tools do not exhaust the set of tools you may need. (They have the same middle name)
  5. (Paraphrased from page 4). It is an essential feature of jokes that they rely on your prior knowledge - a joke that has to explain the background knowledge in order to get the joke will fail to land.
  6. One of the background pieces of knowledge you can assume when telling jokes is that the listener is familiar with jokes. As such, you can tell jokes that are funny partly because of their relationship to the nature of telling jokes. For example "How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb? Fish." is not a funny joke unless you are familiar with the category of problem-solving jokes.
  7. Page 10. "there will be no comprehensive theory of jokes or their purpose, not only because I have no such theory but also because I believe there could be no such theory." - this is the core of what makes "Jokes" an interesting but somewhat limited book I think. It's mostly Cohen giving a tour of some things he finds interesting in the space of jokes, but it could use a bit more theory to tie it all together. I often struggle to remember what I get out of this book because of the lack of unification
  8. I also think he's wrong about the impossibility of such a theory. His argument seems to be that joking is too contextual to admit a unifying theory, but I'm not sure this follows - eating is also very contextual, but there are unifying principles underlying our appetites and what makes a dish work. One shouldn't confuse the highly contextual nature of expertise for a lack of unity in the underlying problems being solved.
  9. Page 11. You can tell this is a book about philosoph of humour because it contains the following joke: "According to Freud, what comes between fear and sex? fünf". All books about philosophy of humour have to contain this joke, it's the rules.
  10. Cohen claims that this joke doesn't really work written, but I don't have a problem reading it. I wonder if this varies based on how people read and whether they hear the words in their head as they read?
  11. Back to page 10. Cohen talks about joking as a two-stage art, consisting of both composition and telling. I have a whole prior post disagreeing with this.
  12. (Page 12). There is no such thing as a pure joke. All jokes are conditional on what the audience understands - at the bare minimum you have to share a language (though this is perhaps only true in Cohen's specific conception of "joke" - it seems to me that some physical humour could be universal. Although even there you have to share a body language, which isn't as cross cultural as all that), but really a joke can only land if it fits in with and askew to the audience's understanding of the world. See The humour test for expertise
  13. Cohen uses the term "hermetic" for a joke that requires extensive background knowledge or beliefs (e.g. a mathematician joke)
  14. Page 17. "It is not required that the audience (or the teller) actually believe that [the stereotype on which a joke was predicated], but he must be acquainted with this idea. When jokes play upon commonplaces - which may or may not be believed - they oten do it by exaggeration."
  15. Page 20. "It is difficult to say just when such jokes [about particular regional or ethnic stereotypes] become offensive." - one thing that often comes through in this book is that Cohen seems to have a very high tolerance for jokes that would definitely get you cancelled these days. It seems partly a very 20th century attitude, but also partly particular to Cohen. This isn't just that he's fine with them for other groups either - he talks about antisemitic jokes in the same way that he talks about Polish or black jokes (though, it does seem to me that his examples of antisemitic jokes are milder than his examples of racist jokes against black people. Though also in his defence, he mostly uses the latter as examples of jokes that go too far)
  16. (Page 21). "Conditional jokes that depend upon feelings in the audience, likes and dislikes, and preferences, I call affective. Typically, these jokes are understood by many people, but the success of the jokes—their capacity to amuse—depends upon the affective disposition of the audience."
  17. (Page 22). Jokes can have many layers of response. A joke can be funny to most people, but also have affective or hermetic conditions which render it funnier.
  18. (Page 24). An example of this that he mentions and that I hadn't realised before is that when Hamlet says "Get thee to a nunnery", this line lands very differently if you know that "nunnery" is slang for "brothel".
  19. (Page 25). Cohen talks about the futility of trying to explain a joke, but I'm not so sure. There's definitely an art to explaining a joke so that it's funny, it's just funny for very different reasons than the joke would otherwise be funny. It's more like a sort of Stewart Lee "domming the audience into laughing". It's also very annoying, but it does work.
  20. (Page 25). "a deep satisfactionin successful joke transactions is the sense held mutually by teller and hearer that they are joined in feeling". This is a recurring theme in the book - that jokes are a form of shared intimacy, based on the fact that you both find the same things funny. Cohen doesn't explicitly link this to any theory of humour, but I think part of the significance here is that a shared joke indicates that you and I find the same things incongruous, and thus that we must look at the world in a broadly similar way. Sharing a laugh is revelling in some way that we are the same.
  21. (Page 28). Cohen talks about communities of amusement, and I don't think he's right. He's committing a classic mistake that likeness and relationships are enough to constitute a community. People who share an amusement with you are like you, and like each other, but lack a sufficient unity as a group to constitute a community. It's more like a type than a community, and types can serve as the starting poitn for a community but are not one themselves.
  22. (Page 31). "Why do we recommend these things to one another, anyway? [...] Because we wish one another well? Well, maybe, but at its core I do not think this is entirely a matter of altruism. [...] I discover something of what it is to be a human being by finding this thing in me, and then having it echoed in you, another human being. [...] I want you to like it beause I like you and I want you to have something you like, and I want you to be grateful to me for supplying it. But I also need you to like it, because in your liking I receive a confirmation of my own liking."

As you can see, I did not make it to 100. This got me about a third of the way through the book, and took me about an hour, and I think that's enough for now.

I didn't find these useless to write, but I also don't think this is the right format. I'll probably try something more essay-like next time.