Did you hear the one about…

Some years ago I met a guy who works as a comedian, and I got to see his act, which I liked a lot—I’m a snob when it comes to stand-up, so it pleased me that he was good. He had some excellent bits (“I ain’t gay. Anyone who thinks I’m gay can suck my…wait a minute”). Also, he liked my books, and played poker. We hung out some, and at various times he would give me funny looks I couldn’t parse. Later, after he’d returned to California, it hit me that those looks came when I told jokes, and they were the same looks I give people when they find out I’m a writer and start telling me the plot of the book they might write someday—it was the, “You aren’t impressing me, you’re just embarrassing yourself” look.

What’s weird about that is that there really is no connection between telling jokes and doing stand-up.  I’d have told him those same jokes if he were a chef or a truck driver. He thought I was trying to impress him, I thought I was establishing community.  Because that’s the difference.  Stand-up, at its best, is about the same thing fiction is, at its best: helping people see the world in a new way, exposing what is hidden, revealing absurdities and contradictions that we often miss—as witness the line of his I quoted above. Comedians use laughter where we use catharsis and suspense and so on.

Jokes serve a different social purpose.  Jokes are about saying, “I invite you into my circle, into my tribe,” or maybe asking, “Are you part of my circle, my tribe?” I mean, we enjoy making people laugh, but the social function is to bring us closer to each other, to create and solidify community.

“Whom.” We’re grammar nerds.
“…but now it’s MY fault.” We are familiar with IT and business management.
“What is this, a joke?” We appreciate the self-referential.
“You can’t have mass without me.” We know at least a little about physics.
“It’s called a lamp.” We have some familiarity with theater.
“Two to hold down the author.” We get publishing.
“About a hundred yards further than last year.” We think it’s okay to be disrespectful about Americans.
“A pilot, you fucking racist.” We think racism is contemptible.

Religious jokes, in this regard, are weird, because they range all the way from, “We are both familiar enough with this faith or this subculture to feel like members,” to inviting contempt for a specific article of faith, to inviting contempt for those who subscribe to it, or any of several other things. Is this Jewish joke perpetuating a stereotype that dehumanizes Jews, or is it an invitation, one Jew to another, to chuckle at the peculiarities of a shared culture?

With this in mind, when someone tells you, for example, a racist joke, what circle are you being asked to join? Yeah. And at some level we’re aware of that; it’s why those jokes make us feel kind of unclean, even if (especially if) surprise pulls an unwilling laugh out of us.

And, of course, society changes, culture changes, and it does so unevenly, and so the meaning of the same joke can change, and maybe someone telling it doesn’t see the invitation to join the same group you do: are you being invited to join the group of those who think domestic abuse is okay, or the group of those who “think this PC stuff has gone too far,” or those who are so tightly knit, and so certain of each other’s attitudes, that it is safe to be transgressive with each other?  When I tell you, “Bam, the Greek disappears,” am I inviting you to share in stereotyping Greeks, to share in a distaste for homosexual acts, or to share in the pleasure of subverting Antisemitism?  When I tell that joke, it is the latter; yet I have to be aware that people might take it to be either of the others, and be careful of the context in which I tell it.  When someone tells the, “That’s the spirit!” joke, is it saying that rape is a laughing matter, or recognizing a shared interest in an alternative subculture?  Context is everything.

My point is not that you ought to “call out” Aunt Edna for her racist joke, or Uncle Frank for his blonde joke; that’s up to you—my own opinion is that doing so accomplishes nothing except to ruin Thanksgiving dinner. I’m simply suggesting that it is useful to be a little bit aware of what in-group someone is inviting you to join.

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11 thoughts on “Did you hear the one about…”

  1. I haven’t heard people tell jokes in years. This was a common pastime / social skill when I was young. I don’t know if jokes have become less popular or if I just need to get out more. Puns seem to be as ubiquitous as ever.

  2. I love the way you’ve used the “only the punchline” device to invite us all into the circle of “connoisseurs of vast numbers of jokes of contextually questionable taste who are afraid to actually tell them because someone might have a different context”.

  3. My dear departed mother had a little book she kept joke notes in. One evening she got out her notebook and said she was going to entertain us with her jokes. She started reading her little book, flipping pages and kept reading. Soon she was laughing. Then she was almost rolling on the floor. We all said, “come on, tell us, we’re dying.” She wiped her eyes and said, “I wrote down the punch lines to remind me of the jokes. But I can’t remember a single one.”

    Such is the problem with punch lines.

  4. I have a meta-category of jokes I only tell in limited social circumstances . . .
    Come to think of it, I don’t know any Hungarian jokes. I did get a good mandolin joke recently, though.

    Q: How many writers does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: Do we have to change it?!
    Q: How many editors does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: The last time this question was asked, it was about writers. Are you sure this is correct? It seems inconsistent.

  5. Seems odd to me that the comedian looked askance at you for telling jokes in his presence. As you point out, telling jokes is something people do, like breathing, or eating, or singing, or dancing.

    I expect professional singers don’t give people funny looks if they catch people singing in their presence.

    I’m reminded of a story Anthony Bourdain tells in his book KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL. He describes how his mother-in-law was apologetic when she cooked meatloaf for him. He tried unsuccessfully many times to reassure her that he loved her meatloaf in part because he loved her. When he was sitting down at her kitchen table to eat her meatloaf, he was not doing so as a professional chef.

  6. Mitch: Agreed. But I’m going to guess he had a lot of experience with, “Oh, you’re a comedian? Have you heard this one?” and assumed that’s where I was coming from. It gave me an interesting perspective.

  7. Stand-up comics are often socially awkward. They are arrive by training or experience to a place where they control the interaction during their performances. One-on-one they are no longer in control, and thus are at sea. Many Law School professors are the same way.

  8. Stand-up comics are the nearest approximation in our society to the mythical court jester — and oh my does the state of awareness of good stand-up (there is plenty, most know nothing about any) tell us sad things about our society.

    On another note, I’ve developed a theory (it is stated in a falsifiable way and is testable) about joke telling. Essentially, one can only deliver an effective punchline if one is also a capable liar. The reverse is also true: those who are terrible liars are also incapable of delivering an effective punch line.

    I would begin to explain this by saying that the punchline must come as something of a surprise if it is to work, and so necessarily the teller of the joke must hide the punchline or use misdirection.

    A question has arisen in my head: if society changes such that a joke is now considered ill, could the formulation of the punch line rehabilitate it? This has certainly been true of ethnic jokes: they work for all ethnicities (for the most part, anyway) and can be changed for whoever the new immigrants are. Though perhaps that has run its limit, too.

  9. How does almost every ethnic joke start? Well I look over my shoulders in both directions…

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