There aren’t many authors who could craft an entertaining and coherent narrative out of Schopenhauer, Joseph Stalin, and penis jokes, but Jim Holt has managed it with Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: The History and Philosophy of Jokes.
Begun as an assignment for The New Yorker in 2004, the slim but information-jammed volume traces jokes from the Greeks to Garry Shandling, then poses a philosophical question: Why does humor make us laugh? The answer, as explained by Holt and supported with a Friar’s Club roast’s worth of jokes, is both fascinating and, yes, actually funny.
Along the way, we’re introduced to history’s leading agelasts (non-laughers, including Sir Isaac Newton, Spinoza, and — surprise! — Stalin) and learn that Freud’s take on jokes was interesting (he saw them as a release of inhibitions) but his delivery absurdly terrible (“An impoverished individual borrowed 25 florins from a prosperous acquaintance . . .”).
By the end of the book, you’ll know exactly why you’re laughing.
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