Sunday, June 29, 2008

More on Jokes

Look, a philology joke!

“In some languages,” said the Oxford philosopher J.L. Austin, “a double negative yields an affirmative. In other languages, a double negative yields a more emphatic negative. Yet, curiously enough, I know of no language, either natural or artificial, in which a double affirmative yields a negative.”

Suddenly, from the back of the hall, in a round Brooklyn accent, came the comment, "Yeah, yeah.”

Ranks right up there with the one about the freshman crossing Harvard Yard on the first day of classes who accosts an upperclassman and says, "Can you tell me where the library's at?"

He gets a chilly reply: "My good man; at Hah-vard we do not end a sentence in a preposition."

Freshman frowns, thinks for a second, then says, "OK, can you tell me where the library's at, asshole?"

The former is from this review of a new joke book.

Another review of it, here, offers this scientific perspective:

A team of researchers at Bowling Green State University reported in 2000 that rats produce an ultrasonic chirping during play and when tickled by humans. These chirps appear to be contagious, and young rats prefer older rats who produce more of them.

Rats and humans had a common ancestor about 75m years ago, and humour has clearly come a long way since then. Nobody has caught rats, or even chimps, trying to tell a joke. But another finding from recent research is that pre-packaged jokes are a less important part of humour than people may think. Jokes have a long and fascinating history -- which is engagingly told in a short book, "Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes", by Jim Holt, to be published in America in July and in Britain in October. But it seems that only about 11% of daily laughter is actually occasioned by jokes. Another 17% is prompted by media and the remaining 72% arises spontaneously in social interaction.

That reviewer, Anthony Gottlieb, notes in his blurb that "he is working on a book about nothingness," which might contribute to your daily 17 percent.

This review, meanwhile, pokes deeper into the psychology:

Laughter is one of the most treacherous of all fields of history. Like sex and eating, it is an absolutely universal human phenomenon, and at the same time something that is highly culturally and chronologically specific. Every human society in the world laughs, and whatever their race or language, people make almost exactly the same sound in doing so.

[What about the deaf?

This study investigated whether laughter occurs simultaneously with signing, or punctuates signing, as it does speech, in 11 signed conversations (with two to five participants) that had at least one instance of audible, vocal laughter. Laughter occurred 2.7 times more often during pauses and at phrase boundaries than simultaneously with a signed utterance. Thus, the production of laughter involves higher order cognitive or linguistic processes rather than the low-level regulation of motor processes competing for a single vocal channel. In an examination of other variables, the social dynamics of deaf and hearing people were similar, with "speakers" (those signing) laughing more than their audiences and females laughing more than males.

There you go.]

Part of what makes humor fascinating is that it is as universal as breathing, yet so idiosyncratic that a joke has to be put together with the precision of a recipe to work. And it typically only works the first time. What's funny last week isn't funny this week, and what's funny on my block might just get blank stares on the other side of town. From the NYRB review:

Never mind what we may share with the primates; it is often hard for the English to share a joke with their neighbors across the Channel, or to respond to cartoons penned a century ago. It is all very well for comedians to claim that "the old ones are the best," but anyone who has picked up a nineteenth-century copy of a comic magazine such as Punch is almost bound to have been disappointed. Even when they are not referring to the minutiae of some now forgotten political crisis, the vast majority of the cartoons simply don't make you laugh. It is sometimes easy enough, on a few moments' reflection, to get the joke and to see why it might once have seemed funny; but that is a very long way from feeling the remotest temptation to laugh oneself. In that sense laughter does not travel across space, time, or even necessarily—as any encounter with a group of under-fifteens will tell us—between different age groups in a single community.

The writer then delves into the topic of ancient humor, one of the most vexing and absorbing puzzles. What sorts of things made ancient people laugh? Can we tell from the text what the jokes are? I'm certain the coast guard in "Beowulf," for instance, is there for comic relief, but that's just a hunch. I can't prove it. No one can.

Read the 3rd C. B.C.E. comic mimes of Herondas, if you can find them. Those certainly were meant to be humorous. But it's maddening to try to trick out the humor in them now. To "Get it," you have to know about ancient schoolmasters or whore houses in a way that everyone then knew, but even scholars now don't.

A related problem is accents, which are not only humorous when put to good use (confusion from words that sound alike in a different accent) but present an instant way to tag a character with a set of stereotypical features and a rough back-story.

They were common in ancient Greek drama, but they present a problem for a modern translator, whose audience knows no proper Greek, much less the local shades. Ezra Pound worked one comedic Greek character into modern expectations by using minstrel show dialect ("made the watchman talk nigger," as Pound put it). But already less than 80 years later, that's impossible.

Consider Lampito in "Lysistrata." Typically, in U.S. productions, she has a thick Appalachian, hillbilly, or Deep South accent. Probably the women of the Wild West, of all the regions in the U.S., would bear the closest parallel to Lampito the Spartan, but that region lacks a strong accent for the stage. In translations made in Britain, however, Spartan dialect typically was rendered into Scottish English. It does have a resemblance to it, with its flattened vowels, and there's a cultural overlap, in suggestion of rudeness, stinginess, female toughness, and love of warfare. During the Cold War, a Russian accent sometimes was used for Spartan.

What lasts, whether in Herondas or Seinfeld, is the humor that comes from the most basic human situations, the ones unchanging over millennia, which even the rats and the apes would recognize if they could. Love, marriage, sex, bodily functions, child-rearing. According to the NYRB article, a version of this joke (this is Freud's version) is one of the oldest jokes known, and I wouldn't be surprised if it turned out to be the ur-joke:

A royal personage was making a tour through his provinces and noticed a man in the crowd who bore a striking resemblance to his own exalted person. He beckoned to him and asked: "Was your mother at one time in service in the Palace?" "No, your Highness," was the reply, "but my father was."