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Funny business
What makes a joke tick?

Recently, I made up a joke: "Have you seen The Passion of the Christ? I hear the crucifixion scene is so gory that the Red Cross had to launch a fake-blood drive." For days I went around telling that joke. "Fake-blood drive!" Iíd say. "Get it?" The number of people who got it: zero. A few of my more charitable friends smiled weakly, but mostly people looked at me with expressions that fell somewhere between pity and contempt. Weird. The joke seemed to warrant at least a titter of amusement, if not a guffaw. So, confused and a little hurt, I decided to find out where Iíd gone wrong.

According to humor theorists, we are roused to laughter, for the most part, by having our expectations defeated. The idea of an extremely tall woman marrying an extremely short man, for example, makes us laugh because there is an incongruity involved. Moreover, we know that extremely short men have tiny penises, and tiny penises are inherently funny. Closely related to incongruity is inversion: we laugh at Oscar Wildeís "Work is the curse of the drinking classes" because we know that drinking too much can lead to a flaccid penis. Flaccid penises, too, are inherently funny. But why?

Friedrich Nietzsche once said, "Not with wrath do we kill, but with laughter." Nietzsche, we should point out, was German, so he wouldnít recognize a joke if it came up and invaded Poland. Different cultures laugh at different things. Indeed, knowing what tickles a particular cultureís funny bone can tell you a lot about that culture. The French, for example, are amused by the fact that humans are mortal creatures, alone in an uncaring universe; this means, of course, that the French are a bunch of pretentious assholes. Italians laugh at sex, because they are a sensuous people with hairy shoulders; Russians laugh at hardship, because otherwise theyíd have to kill themselves; Poles laugh at sausages, because sausages, especially Polish ones, are inherently funny.

It is also widely understood that some nationalities are more amusing than others. As an Englishman, I am obliged to be funny ó itís written in our Magna Carta. No such responsibility, apparently, burdens the people of Afghanistan. I once read an anthology of Afghan humor, which generally consisted of various cautionary tales about people stealing each otherís sheep and then losing more sheep than they managed to steal. The book was edifying enough ó I, for one, will never be tempted to steal a sheep from anyone named Mozhgan ó but I canít say it reduced me to helpless laughter.

Different periods, too, have been funnier than others. Since the dawn of the species, when the first man got stuck to the sole of a woolly mammoth, humans have been laughing at physical humor. Actual jokes, however, are a much more recent phenomenon. Indeed, before the 1940s there had not been a single amusing wisecrack told anywhere, not even in England. Even William Shakespeare, the author of more than a dozen so-called comedies, was about as funny as a flat tire. Take Twelfth Night, a comedic play described by one scholar as "escapist folderol":

Clown: Good madonna, why mournest thou?

Olivia: Good fool, for my brotherís death.

Clown: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

Clown: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brotherís soul being in heaven.

Maybe thereís something wrong with me, but I found "escapist folderol" to be far funnier than anything in the above conversation. Elizabethan audiences, though, were tickled to death by such metaphysical high jinks. The fact is, tastes change as they move across geographical and temporal divides. To amuse audiences in contemporary Afghanistan, the dialogue would run as follows: Clown: "I stole one of your dead brotherís sheep, madonna." Olivia: "Ah, fool, I took three of yours." In France, the Clown would only have to say, "Your brother is dead" to have them rolling in the aisles.

In modern-day America, meanwhile, the exchange might go something like this:

Clown: Good madonna, whatís up?

Olivia: Good fool, my brother died.

Clown: No shit, madonna. How?

Olivia: He was having sex with one of Mozhganís sheep, fool, and had a coronary.

Clown: The more fool him, madonna, Mozhganís sheep some ugly bitches.

Funny, yes, but why? "If you look at jokes," said Sigmund Freud, "they are either about somebody getting hurt, or they have sexual connotations." The laughter quotient of the above exchange is boosted further by the fact that it contains a funny-sounding foreign name. Needless to say, itís not nice to laugh at funny-sounding foreign names, but thatís the point. Good humor doesnít only violate logic and common sense, it very often violates socially accepted behavior. I, for instance, am a huge fan of Americaís Funniest Home Videos, because, God help me, I love to see kids getting hit in the face with baseballs.

According to the Superiority Theory of humor, my penchant for laughing at othersí pain and humiliation stems from a perverse form of narcissism. I feel superior to the child in question because a) Iím not getting hit in the face with a baseball, and b) the stupid kid should have gotten out of the way. I am more inclined to buy into the Relief Theory of humor. By laughing at the childís injury, goes the argument, I am finding a safe release for the feelings of aggression and malice that we all harbor, and am therefore less inclined to throw a baseball into the face of a child myself.

Which leads us back to my The Passion of the Christ joke. As it turns out, the reason it failed to make anyone laugh may be because it simply isnít malicious enough. Fake blood, after all, will never be as funny as the real thing. Iím currently working on a revised version of the joke. In it, Jesus gets hit in the face with a baseball thrown by a tiny-penised sheep farmer named Mozhgan. Now thatís funny.

Send Afghan jokes ó but only the funny ones ó to Chris Wright at cwright[a]phx.com

Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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