Funny in Theory, Not in Practice

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes
By Jim Holt
W. W. Norton, 160 pages, $15.95

The eponymous shaggy-dog story is about a boy who enters his dog into a local “shaggy-dog contest.” When the dog wins, the boy enters him into a larger regional contest, and then, when the dog wins that one, too, into still another, until finally, after a tortuously narrated series of trials and triumphs, the dog makes it into the quadrennial World Shaggy Dog contest—which he loses badly, prompting the boy to remark, “Well, maybe he wasn’t so shaggy.”

Depending on how it’s delivered, a shaggy-dog joke can be either a cruel prank at the listener’s expense, or a sort of joyous exercise in silliness, in which the punch line, a joke’s nominal destination, serves only as a pretext for the journey. I like telling shaggy-dog jokes—my favorite is about a little boy who loves clowns—and I usually intend them to be of the second category.

But whether my listeners agree that my joke is a joyful sharing of silliness, rather than an obnoxious waste of their time, seems to hinge on whether they find my account of a young man’s two decades of preparation to avenge himself on a clown who humiliated him—his training at the Shaolin Temple, his admission to West Point, his close reading of The Prince and Thus Spake Zarathustra—entertaining in itself, or whether it’s merely something they put up with in expectation of some greater payoff at the end, a climax more explosive than my dramatic description of the young man standing up in the circus big top before the eyes of his family and friends, stretching out his arm, pointing his finger and intoning in a deep bass voice, “Fuck you, clown!”

Popular books about jokes—as opposed to serious psychological or sociological studies—tend to be much like shaggy-dog jokes themselves, and the more they attempt to disarm this fact by acknowledging it, the more surely it is true. Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes is no exception. The author, Jim Holt, actually jokes in his preface that he intended to crib the original magazine article from which his book is expanded from some already-written history of jokes. He goes on to say that finding no such work, he had to write one himself.

But he didn’t. Writing capsule biographies of joke collectors with funny names—Legman, Poggio, Schmulowitz—is not writing a history. (Moreover, he critically fails to maintain a distinction between jokes themselves and their written records.) And assembling the observations of other thinkers—Wittgenstein, Freud, Morgenbesser—is not writing a philosophy.

All of which is fair enough, since the whole thing is just a pretext for telling jokes, anyway, and, as I said, I like that sort of thing. But the question then becomes this: Have I already heard why the Hebrew word “eretz” is spelled with a gimmel? Or why women wear makeup and perfume? Or how Helen Keller burned her fingers? Or about the guy who took a cab from New York to Chicago? If you haven’t, you should; but as for me, alas, I already had, so for me, it simply wasn’t too shaggy.

Will Heinrich is on staff at The Observer. He can be reached at wheinrich@observer.com.

Funny in Theory, Not in Practice