Where Do Jokes Come From? Funny You Should Ask

Stop Me If You've Heard This
W.W. Norton
Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes
By Jim Holt
Hardcover, 141 pages
W.W. Norton
List Price: $17.95
Jim Holt i i

Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for The New Yorker, Slate and The New York Review of Books. W.W. Norton hide caption

itoggle caption W.W. Norton
Jim Holt

Jim Holt writes about science and philosophy for The New Yorker, Slate and The New York Review of Books.

W.W. Norton

Is there anything as unfunny as trying to explain humor? If you need to have a joke unpacked, chances are humor is lost on you. Flying in the face of this wisdom, New Yorker staff writer Jim Holt has assembled this amusing little meditation on jokes through the ages, from the Greeks to Gary Shandling (credited with the funniest quip ever: "I went to my doctor and told him, 'My penis is burning.' He said: 'That means somebody is talking about it.'")

At just 141 heavily illustrated pages, Stop Me If You've Heard This is a literary equivalent of a three-minute stand-up routine — quick, uncomplicated and circular — for good reason. Few jokes are actually new. Holt traces schoolboy flatulence gags back to the Greeks and Wall Street-boss cracks back to the New Testament. "Nobody ever tells jokes for the first time," proclaimed the late critic and folklorist Gershon Legman, one of the humor fiends Holt turned up in his research.

Holt does a fine job parsing different theories of laughter — from how it relieves inhibition to the idea that it lets us beat on superiors. But Legman and his fellow humor hounds steal the show. According to lore, Legman invented the '60s slogan, "make love, not war," got Anais Nin a gig writing dollar-a-page erotica for an Oklahoma collector, made his literary debut with a book on oral sex, and was so poor he wore a rope for a belt. (Read about Legman and other early fathers of joke-ology.)

One of the tart pleasures of Holt's survey is learning how many serious sorts cared about humor. Poggio Bracciolini, secretary to eight Renaissance popes, wrote the first European collection. Freud studied jokes, as did lugubrious philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Each one took a whack at explaining why those 15 muscles on our face flex and why we convulse in respiratory spasms.

No one has succeeded — including Jim Holt, a failure that triumphantly and entertainingly proves his point: What's so funny about humor? Ask again and someone's going to laugh at you.

Excerpt: 'Stop Me If You've Heard This'

Note: There is language in this excerpt some readers may find offensive.
Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes
By Jim Holt
Hardcover, 141 pages
W.W. Norton
List Price: $17.95

Part I

HISTORY

A few years ago, browsing in a dusty used-book store in Maine, I came across a curious volume. It was a fat, tattered paperback bearing the title Rationale of the Dirty Joke. Its author, I saw from the sixties-style futuristic cover, was G. Legman. Taking it off the shelf and riffling though its badly oxidized pages, I found that it contained what looked like thousands of erotic and scatological jokes, arranged under such themes as "coital postures," "the big inch," and "zoöphily." These jokes were accompanied by Freudian-style commentary, along with random animadversions on aspects of sixties life, like zip codes, hippies, women who swear, and Marshall McLuhan. ...

No doubt "G. Legman" itself was a pseudonym; both the initial (G-spot?) and the surname (as opposed to tit-man?) were suspicious. But a few months later, in the late winter of 1999, I saw on the obituary page of the New York Times that Gershon Legman, a "self-taught scholar of dirty jokes," had died, at the age of eighty-one, in the South of France, where he lived in voluntary exile from his native United States.

A certain facetiousness might seem to attach to the phrase "scholar of dirty jokes." Is this really an area in which scholarship is appropriate or profitable? Well, jokes do fall into the category of folklore, along with myths, proverbs, legends, nursery rhymes, riddles, and superstitions. And a good proportion of the jokes in oral circulation involve sex or scatology. (An analysis of 13,804 jokes current in New York in 1963 revealed that 17 percent of them were about sex and 11 percent were about "Negroes.") If the history of folklore aspires to be a history of the human mind, as some of its practitioners insist, somebody has to do the tedious job of collecting and recording obscene, disgusting, and blasphemous jokes, and ushering them into print.

Although we think of the joke as a cultural constant, it is a form of humor that comes and goes with the rise and fall of civilizations. What distinguishes the joke from the mere humorous tale is that it climaxes in a punch line — a little verbal explosion set off by a sudden switch in meaning. A joke, unlike a tale, wants to be brief. As Freud observed, it says what it has to say not just in few words but in too few words. There is, of course, a longer genre of joke known as the "shaggy-dog story" in which digressions and embroideries lead to an almost painfully delayed punch line. But the classic joke proceeds with arrowlike swiftness, resolving its matter in the form of a two-liner (Hear about the bulimic stag party? The cake came out of the girl) or even a one-liner (I was so ugly when I was born, the doctor slapped my mother). Often it is signaled by a formulaic setup, which might itself, in turn, become the subject of a meta-joke (A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar. Bartender says, "What is this, a joke?").

*

The joke is sometimes said to have been invented by Palamedes, the hero of Greek legend who outwitted Odysseus on the eve of the Trojan War. But since this proverbially ingenious fellow is also credited with inventing numbers, the alphabet, lighthouses, dice, and the practice of eating meals at regular intervals, the claim should perhaps be taken with a grain of salt. In the Athens of Demosthenes, there was a comedians' club called the Group of Sixty, which met in the Temple of Heracles to trade wisecracks, and it is said that Philip of Macedon paid handsomely to have their jokes written down; but the volume, if it ever existed, has been lost. On the Roman side, Plautus refers to jestbooks in a couple of his plays, while Suetonius tells us that Melissus, a favorite professor of the emperor Augustus, compiled no fewer than 150 joke anthologies. Despite this, only a single jokebook survives from ancient times: the Philogelos, or "Laughter-Lover," a collection in Greek that was probably put together in the fourth or fifth century A.D. It contains 264 items, several of which appear twice, in slightly different form. This suggests that the volume is not one jokebook but two combined, a hunch borne out by the fact that it is attributed to two authors, Hierocles and Philagrius, although joint authorship was rare at the time. Virtually nothing is known about either man; there is some scholarly speculation that the Hierocles in question was a fifth-century Alexandrian philosopher of that name who was once publicly flogged in Constantinople for paganism, which, as one classicist has observed, "might have given him a taste for mordant wit."

The jokes in the Philogelos are spare and pointed. ("'How shall I cut your hair?' a talkative barber asked a wag. 'In silence!'") They take on a gallery of stock characters: the drunk, the miser, the braggart, the sex-starved woman, and the man with bad breath, as well as a classic type known as the scholastikos, variously translated as "pedant," "absent-minded professor," or "egghead." ("An egghead was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. 'Don't cry,' he consoled them, 'I have freed you all in my will.'"

Some of the Philogelos jokes are now more cryptic than funny, perhaps because of lost undertones. A couple of jokes about lettuce, for example, might have struck a Roman audience as hilarious, given their belief that lettuce leaves, variously, promoted or impeded sexual function. Similarly "An egghead asked his father how much a five-liter flask holds" may have come across to an ancient audience as a double entendre, since some scholars believe that the Greek word for "flask," lekythos, was slang for "penis" in Aristophanes. But others, like no. 263 (lifted from Plutarch), would not be out of place at a Friars Club meeting: "?'I had your wife for nothing,' someone sneered at a wag. 'More fool you. I'm her husband, I have to have the ugly bitch. You don't.'?" The most haunting joke in the Philogelos, however, is no. 114, about a resident of Abdera, a Greek town whose citizens were renowned for their foolishness: "Seeing a eunuch, an Abderite asked him how many children he had. The eunuch replied that he had none, since he lacked the means of reproduction. Retorted the Abderite . . ." The rest is missing from the surviving text, which goes to show the strange potency of unheard punch lines.

*

The Philogelos was misplaced during the Dark Ages, and with it, seemingly, the art of the joke. Sophisticated humor was kept alive in the Arab world, where the more leisurely folktale was cultivated. During the centuries of Arab conquest, folktales from the Levant, many of them satirical or erotic, made their way through Spain and Italy. An Arab tale about a wife who is pleasured by her lover while her duped husband watches uncomprehendingly from a tree, for instance, is one of several that later show up in Boccaccio's Decameron. Once in Europe, the folktale began to cleave in two. On the one hand, with the invention of printing and the rise of literacy, it grew longer, filling out into the chivalric romance and, ultimately, the novel. On the other hand, as the pace of urban life quickened, it got shorter in its oral form, shedding details and growing more formulaic as it condensed into the humorous anecdote. It was in the early Renaissance that the art of the joke was reborn, and the midwife was a man called Poggio.

*

Poggio Bracciolini (1380-1459) was one of the most colorful and versatile of the Italian humanists. A secretary to eight popes over a half century, he fathered fourteen children with a mistress before taking, at the age of fifty-five, a beautiful eighteen-year-old bride, who bore him another six children. His career coincided with a turbulent era in church history. During the decades-long split known as the Western Schism, there were two and sometimes three competing popes, and church councils had to be called to restore unity. Poggio was a passionate bibliophile, and he profited from the disorder, traveling throughout Europe in search of lost works of ancient literature. From the dungeons of remote medieval monasteries he rescued precious manuscripts that had been rotting into oblivion, and laboriously deciphered and copied them. It is thanks to him that we have Lucretius's De Rerum Natura and Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria, as well as many of the orations of Cicero, the architectural writings of Vitruvius, and Apicius's works on cooking.

Not only was Poggio the greatest book-hunter of his era; he also wielded one of its wickedest pens, satirizing the vices of the clergy and lambasting rival scholars in his Ciceronian Latin. "In his invective he displayed such vehemence that the whole world was afraid of him," a contemporary observed. A skilled calligrapher, Poggio invented the prototype of the roman font. As chancellor of the Republic of Florence after his retirement from the Curia, he became that city's biographer. Yet, for all these accomplishments, Poggio ended up being best known for a book of jokes.

The Liber Facetiarum, usually called simply the Facetiae, was the first volume of its kind to be published in Europe. In this collection of 273 items — jests, bons mots, puns, and humorous anecdotes — the expansive Arab-Italian novella can be seen turning into the swift facezia. Some of the material had been gathered by Poggio during his travels through Europe; several of the jests have been traced to tales told by Provençal bards in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. But much of it came out of a sort of joke club in the Vatican called the Bugiale — the "fib factory." Here papal scribes would gather at the end of a tedious day spent drafting bulls, dispensations, and encyclicals to shoot the breeze and tell scandalous stories.

Poggio published his Facetiae in 1451, when he was seventy years old. Soon the volume was being read throughout Europe. Although many of the jokes were about sex and poked fun at the morals of churchmen, not a word of condemnation was heard from the Vatican. Presumably, since the Facetiae were in Latin, they could be savored by the clerical class without corrupting the morals of the masses. Later commentators, however, were not so broad-minded. In 1802 the Reverend William Shepherd, the author of the only biography of Poggio in English, expressed his shock that "an apostolic secretary who enjoyed the friendship and esteem of the pontiff, should have published a number of stories which outrage the laws of decency, and put modesty to the blush."

*

Copies of the Facetiae are not easy to come by today. The only thing I could find in the library of New York University was a photocopied facsimile of an 1878 Paris edition that was the first unexpurgated translation of Poggio's book into French (even then, the really bawdy bits were left in Latin). Reading through it, I was struck by the familiarity of the themes. There are fat jokes, drunk jokes, erection jokes, and fart jokes. One joke, about a guy tricked into drinking urine, would not have been out of place in the movie American Pie. In Facetia XLVII, a husband asks his wife why, if women and men get equal pleasure out of sex, it is the men who pursue the women rather than vice versa. "It's obvious," the wife says. "We women are always ready to make love, and you men aren't. What good would it do us to solicit you when you're not in the mood?" As jokes go, this is less than sidesplitting, yet the precise reversal of it appears in the American television show Curb Your Enthusiasm, when Cheryl, lying in bed with her husband, Larry, asks him why she's the one who always has to initiate sex. It's because we men are always ready to go, he replies — just tap me on the shoulder when you want it!

By modern standards the Facetiae are invariably too long, and Poggio has a regrettable tendency to preempt the punch line with an explanation, as in Facetia XXVI: "The abbot of Septimo, an extremely corpulent man, was traveling toward Florence one evening. On the road he asked a peasant, 'Do you think I'll be able to make it through the city gate?' He was talking about whether he would be able to make it to the city before the gates were closed. The peasant, jesting on the abbot's fatness, said, 'Why, if a cart of hay can make it through, you can, too!'" In XLIV, a friar preaching against adultery concluded by declaring, "It is such an abominable sin that I would rather sleep with ten virgins than a single married woman" — to which Poggio adds, "Many who heard him felt the same way." Sometimes you get a moral in place of a punch line. In CXXXVII, a shaven-headed woman, chided for not covering her head in public, lifts her skirts in an attempt to hide her baldness, thereby exposing her rear end. "This is directed to those who, to correct a light fault, commit a graver one," Poggio informs us. The jests about women too often turn on the monotonous theme that all their maladies stem from not getting enough sex. Nor are the Facetiae often very funny, at least when abstracted from the presumably chucklesome atmosphere of the Bugiale and set down in cold print. Nonetheless, by collecting and publishing it, Poggio set the precedent for a slew of later jestbooks, most of which shamelessly plundered his.

*

William Caxton, England's first printer of books, padded his own translation of Aesop, in 1484, with a sampling of Poggio's jokes, thus creating the earliest jestbook in English. By Shakespeare's time jestbooks had become extremely popular. "I had my good wit out of the 'Hundred Merry Tales,'" the razor-tongued Beatrice declares in Much Ado About Nothing, referring to a popular collection of the day. Many of the items in these Tudor and Elizabethan jestbooks are artlessly scatological; for example, "What is the most cleanliest leaf among all other leaves? It is holly leaves, for nobody will wipe his arse with them." Many more are scarcely jokes at all. Instead of racing toward a punch line, they simply describe some prank, typically played by a wife on her husband, or illustrate a moral. (Preachers frequently inserted jests into sermons to keep their congregations from falling asleep.)

Another nudge was needed to finish what Poggio had started: the making of the humorous tale into the joke. It came at the beginning of the seventeenth century, when — possibly because of a confusion with another classical writer called Hierocles — twenty-eight of the Philogelos jokes were appended to an edition of his Commentary on the Golden Words of Pythagoras. The jokes were soon circulating in print throughout Europe.

Thanks to the popularity of the rediscovered Philogelos jokes, English humor got shorter and punchier — that is to say, jokier. The change shows up in Joe Miller's Jests, the most enduringly popular of the new generation of jokebooks that began to flourish in the Georgian era. (The eponymous Joe Miller, as it happens, was a notoriously gloomy London stage actor; the collection was put together a year after his death by a hack writer, who no doubt intended the title as a joke.) First published in 1739, it went through so many editions that a "Joe Miller" came to mean a stale joke.

The original edition of Joe Miller's Jests contained everything from jokes about the fractured logic of Irishmen and bad breath ("A Lady being asked how she liked a Gentleman's Singing, who had a very stinking Breath, the Words are good, said she, but the Air is intolerable") to bawdy plays on the word "cock" and ribaldry at the expense of loose women ("A Gentleman said of a young Wench who constantly ply'd about the Temple, that if she had as much Law in her Head, as she had in her Tail, she would be one of the ablest Counsel in England"). The bluer material, however, did not survive the subsequent wave of prudery in Anglo-Saxon culture. In the early nineteenth century, around the time that Thomas Bowdler removed the indelicate bits from Shakespeare, jokebooks also got cleaned up. Little of Poggio could have made it into the expurgated columns of humor magazines like Punch. But the dirty joke lived on in oral culture until it was restored to print, in all its repulsive splendor, by Gershon Legman in the 1960s.

*

Legman, I noticed in my decrepit copy of Rationale of the Dirty Joke, had dedicated the volume "To the Manes [shade] of Poggio Bracciolini, Lover of Books, Folk-Humor, and Women." Did he feel some deep affinity with the mischievous Italian humanist? When I mentioned Legman's name in New York literary circles, people who knew of him — he seems to have left behind a cult following — would tell me the most outlandish things: that he created the sixties slogan Make Love, Not War; that he had an affair with Anaïs Nin and enlisted her help to write dollar-a-page pornography to order for a rich Oklahoma "collector"; that he was behind the invention of the vibrating dildo; that he introduced origami to the West; that he had been the editor of an oddball psychoanalytic quarterly called Neurotica; that he left the United States to escape government persecution, taking refuge in a hill town on the French Riviera, where he lived a hand-to-mouth existence in a dilapidated castle that had once belonged to the Knights Templar.

On investigation most of this turned out to be at least partly true. (We have to take Legman's own word on the dildo and on Make Love, Not War, which he claims to have coined in a lecture at Ohio University in 1963.) Legman was born in 1917 into a Jewish family in the coal country of Pennsylvania. He started collecting jokes early, clipping them from magazines and filing them by theme. After high school he went to New York, where he educated himself in several languages; his university, he said, was the New York Public Library. At the age of twenty-three, he published his first book, Oragenitalism, under the pseudonym Roger-Maxe de la Glannège (an anagram of his given name, George Alexander Legman). It bore the subtitle "An Encyclopaedic Outline of Oral Technique in Genital Excitation, Part I, Cunnilinctus." (Legman later explained that he lacked the courage to do the research for fellatio.) At the time, writing a treatise on oral sex was deemed as dangerous as political sedition. When his publisher's office was raided, Legman briefly fled the state. On his return to New York, he worked as an erotic-book hunter for the sexologist Alfred Kinsey and inhabited the disreputable fringes of the city's literary world, where smut-peddlers were sometimes indistinguishable from avant-garde publishers of Joyce, Lawrence, and Henry Miller.

Legman, however, was more of a moralist than a pornographer. In the late 1940s he wrote Love and Death, a fierce polemic, which argued that violence was the true pornography. Why, he asked, should children be exposed to relentless depictions of violence but shielded from those of lovemaking? "At least sex is normal," he wrote. "Is murder?" Legman published the book himself, mailing copies to customers from his three-room cottage in the Bronx. Although Love and Death was a tirade against censorship, not a piece of erotica, the United States Postal Service authorities accused its author-publisher of sending "indecent, vulgar and obscene materials" through the mail, and cut off his deliveries. Disgusted, Legman left the country, with his wife, for France. They bought a small piece of land on the Riviera with an olive grove and an old building (which was indeed on the site of a Knights Templar castle) that became a repository for his vast collection of rare volumes and his crates of index cards covered with limericks, jokes, and what he called "pissoir epigraphs."

Legman was a handsome man, five feet nine inches tall (according to his FBI file), with thick dark hair, blue eyes, and a strong nose. Because of chronic poverty, he was typically dressed in threadbare clothes with a length of rope for a belt. Friends describe him as tetchy and difficult, but exhilarating to be around. Academics were put off by this autodidact from the murky demimonde, whose rambling prose was full of marginal jeremiads. Legman, in turn, was disdainful of folklorists with PhDs, whom he called "Phudniks" and "cacademics." Yet, by freely making available to them materials that academic journals were afraid to publish, he helped establish erotic folklore as a respectable subject for scholarly study.

Reprinted from Stop Me if You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, by Jim Holt. Copyright (c) 2008 by Jim Holt. With permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

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