Joke Work Essay


Only joking
Kel Glaister

What work does a joke do? “A joke is a delivery system for information about ourselves and the world we live in. Often stuff we don't want to hear: Knock knock, who's there? Death.” [1] Joking, given that it provides enjoyment and silliness, is often written off as not belonging to the realm of serious things. As if enjoyment and importance were mutually exclusive. Wittgenstein thought a whole philosophy could be written in jokes. Never did it but. The standard way for a joker to evade responsibility for the performance or base meaning of their joke is to say, nonchalantly; ‘I was only joking.’ But that never quite does the job. So, what is a joke?

Perhaps the best way is to proceed is not to attempt to find what jokes are, but what jokes are like. A classic technique of joke making- to force similarities where there appear to be none. So, here goes: a joke is like an artwork. A joke is a unit of humour whose borders can be identified, unlike satire or irony. Similarly, artwork is a unit of art, in contrast to a practice or movement. Like art, a joke is made, and made by one (or more) person(s) for the benefit of other people, without whom it would not exist as such. Both is a means to communicate, but never by stating outright, proceeding instead by suggestion, signification, comparison. Both can either be ‘gotten’, or have their meaning(s) sail on by without intellectual or experiential effect. Both rely on already held knowledge shared between joker and audience. And while the meaning of a joke or an artwork may be approximated in words, its primary effect is physical (based in the sight of the eyes or the laugh of the throat and belly).

Joking “is the disguised priest who weds every couple.”[2] It is a way to, quickly and effectively, knot together two or more ideas that cannot otherwise be joined. Like dogs playing poker, for example, or aesthetics and a bottle rack. In effect, the punchline releases this binding and allows the uncomfortable tension of their proximity of be broken by laughter. Joking introduces an irritant into the thinking of the audience producing a sort of discomfort. Laughter could then be characterised as a sort of mental sneeze. The reaction to a joke is bewilderment, followed by illumination.[3]

Of course it’s not just about discomfort. A comparison can be made between joking and sex.[4] It involves the building of (physical and intellectual) tension, much like the ‘forepleasure’ of desire, the pleasure of coming but not yet having come. Its result is uncontrollable bodily convulsions and grunting noises, “an effect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing.”[5] And of course it is always more fun with someone else than by yourself. Laughter is a ‘sudden glory’[6], that goes as quickly as it comes, ‘never to be, itself, but only to be offered infinitely in its own finitude.” [7]
A big laugh is like a little death.

And there’s another point of similarity. Death. Stand up comedians use mortal allusions to the success or failure of a joke; I killed on stage, they died laughing. MDR. Do we laugh because we are dying? Joking is a way to get away from death, because laughter does not belong to death. Laughter is “the tremor of the limit itself.” [8] Joking and art are two ways to approach death as a subject, but always looking askance. We can’t fix death and we can’t get away from it. All that’s left is to “suffer, joke and die.”[9]

Jokes have a social use in that we tell them to mark ourselves as part of a group. If you get in you’re in, if not you’re out. Ever heard nerds joking in binary code? This can be vicious, as with racist are sexist humour, but even innocent jokes require a certain amount of already held knowledge, which cannot be explained before or after without ruining the joke, the spontaneity that is so integral to the machine. The best way to wreck a joke is to explain it.[10]  Jokes “communicate only when audiences are able to simultaneously access similar yet unstated categories, orientations and experiences.” [11]

Joking and art can both have political function as well. “We need the comics to tell us when we're screwing up.”[12] Charlie Chaplin took on Hitler. And won. That said, we can’t valorise jokes as always freedom fighters. After all, “not all are free who mock their chains.” [13] While some say “freedom produces jokes and jokes produce freedom,”[14] others maintain that “by laughter, society avenges itself for the liberties taken with it.[15]” Potay-to, po-ta-to. It’s obvious that joking is used by both sides of every fight, by radicals and by tyrants. Arguably, those on the lower rungs have always been better at joking, but you know, often had less food or stuff like that.[16] The Joke, like the artwork, is morally neutral. It is simply a format: “under the mask of humour, our society allows infinite aggressions by everyone and against everyone.”[17]

Humans evolved into joking.[18] Edward de Bono posits that jokes are a by-product of the mind as a pattern-making machine: that jokes work by taking a recognized pattern and disrupting it. After all most jokes take a familiar scenario: “Three blokes walk into a bar. One of them is a little bit stupid, and the whole thing unfolds with a tedious inevitability.”[19] The joke creates a tear in logic; something like a short circuit, or a wound in our understanding of the world. Laughing is a way to stitch that wound back together, acknowledging its presence but allowing the whole system to remain more or less intact. A joke produces a scar, where the logic repairs itself stronger than it was before.[20] Ever notice how a joke is never as funny the second time around? This teaches the mind to be flexible with categories, and to be able to make new patterns. This wounding is why a good joke, or artwork, is better than a great argument, because “that’s the moment when an idea can get in.”[21]

Jokes, and artworks, never have to finish the argument; they say “what (they) has to say not just in few words but too few words.” The joker doesn’t answer the next question, because the interrogator is too busy laughing. Whatever a joke does, it doesn’t do it honestly. The joker never fights fair, s/he throws a punch(line) when you’re not looking. Because a joke is always a trick, but one that “can deceive us, but only for a moment.” [22]

Jokes do more and less than we give them credit for. So, why is joke-making like art-making? I’ll give the last word to Chris Rock:

 “I am almost never comfortable. I’m never comfortable and I think most comedians have this thing where we’re just not comfortable. Just kinda too aware of things. And you know what they always say, ignorance is bliss. So what’s the opposite? To be aware of every little thing, to notice everything? It’s hell. There’s a kind of hell to that.”[23]








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[1] Lewis Black, History of the Joke with Lewis Black
[2] Jean Paul quoted by Freud, Joke and Their Relation to the Unconscious,
[3] Freud, Joke and Their Relation to the Unconscious,
[4] Admittedly, comparisons are so easily made between sex and almost anything else. It’s human nature.
[5] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment
[6] Henri Bergson
[7] Jean Luc Nancy, Wild laughter in the throat of death
[8] Ibid
[9] Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism
[10] If you need an illustration of this, read Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious.
[11] Elliot Oring, Jokes and the Discourse on Disaster
[12] Lenny Bruce, quoted from Make ‘em Laugh.
[13] Lessing, Nathan de Weise, Act IV, Scene 4.
[14] Jean Paul quoted by Freud, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious,
[15] Henri Berson, quoted in Jokes are a laughing matter, Peter Kivy
[16] “I was interviewed in Germany and the woman asked me why Germans don’t have a sense of humour: “It could be because you murdered all the funny people.”” Robin WIlliams
[17] G Legman.
[18] And we’re not the only ones that do it. Monkeys in zoos have been observed luring schoolchildren closer to their cages with offers of fruit. Then when the children venture close enough, the monkeys throw shit at the kids. Comic gold.
[19] Bill Bailey
[20] Perhaps a better comparison would be muscle training, as the repair done actually increases the ability, and flexibility, of the muscle. Not as poetic, but, so it goes in the footnotes.
[21] George Carlin, quoted from History of the Joke with Lewis Black
[22] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment
[23] Chris Rock, quoted from Make ‘em laugh