Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Humor Dissected

Iron Curtain humor

'What is the difference between communism and capitalism?' 'Capitalism is the exploitation of man by man; communism is the exact opposite.'

'Capitalism stands on the brink of the abyss. It will soon be overtaken by communism.'

Uniquely of its times. And, perhaps, there's an indigenous Eastern European/German quality to much of it. But what also impresses me is how timeless and universal humor always is. You can find the same jokes across every culture where the language allows them to be made.

'Is it true that half the Central Committee are idiots?' 'No, that's rubbish. Half the Central Committee are not idiots,' is a version of a story told about Disraeli: 'Mr Speaker, I withdraw that statement. Half the Cabinet are not asses.'

How many versions of that joke exist? Why do we all still feel delight at the discovery that we don't always appreciate the difference between converse and reverse?

The second joke above, the "abyss" one, is a sly version of the old mixed metaphor. The other three are various plays on the idea that you can reverse certain statements and still be saying the same thing. Such forms probably make up a greater percentage of the humor output of totalitarian systems than democratic ones.

There's at least one American historical variation on this joke, involving Lincoln's appointment of Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania as Secretary of War at the start of his administration. It was patronage for a state that had swung the election for the Republicans, but Cameron was notoriously corrupt. When Lincoln asked Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens if Cameron was corrupt, he replied, "Well, I don't think he would steal a red-hot stove."

Cameron heard about it and demanded a retraction. Stevens then told Lincoln "I believe I told you he would not steal a red-hot stove. I will now take that back."