Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Jokes and Anti-Jokes

Freud's "Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious" was one of the first treatises on the psychology of humor.  Since then, there hasn't been much of an advance.  Humor has been likened to a frog, insofar as it dies under dissection.

A few months back I came across a truthy adage, which said something to the effect that if we can find ourselves repeatedly sad and crying about a bad memory or something hurtful, we should also find it within ourselves to be happy and laugh repeatedly at the good and the humorous.

Unfortunately, it is not that simple.  Humor derives its strength from an element of surprise.  The punch-line is effective because it is unexpected.  It is generally good manners to ask your listener, if he shows disinterest, whether he has heard the joke before.  On the other hand, it is bad manners to stop somebody from telling their sob story, even if you have heard it all before.

Jokes earn their chuckles and guffaws because there is a sudden release of tension, a sudden opening from a closed system, a sudden flash of lightening on a bright summer day.

A few examples will illustrate the point, even though the point doesn't need to be labored:

A Mafia Godfather finds out that his bookkeeper of 20 years, Guido, has cheated him out of $10 million.  Guido is deaf which is why he got the job in the first place.
The Godfather assumed that since Guido could not hear anything, he could never testify in court.When the Godfather goes to confront Guido about his missing $10 million, he takes along his personal lawyer because he knows sign language. The Godfather tells the lawyer, "Ask him where the money is!"
The lawyer, using sign language, asks Guido, "Where's the money?"
Guido signs back, "I don't know what you are talking about." The lawyer tells the Godfather, "He says he doesn't know what you are talking about."
The Godfather pulls out a pistol, puts it to Guido's head and says, "Ask him again or I'll kill him!"
The lawyer signs to Guido, "He'll kill you if you don't tell him."
Guido trembles and signs back, "OK! You win! The money is in a brown briefcase, buried behind the shed at my cousin Bruno's house."
The Godfather asks the lawyer, "What did he say?"
The lawyer replies, "He says you don't have the balls to pull the trigger."
A young investment banker goes out and buys the car of his dreams - a brand new Ferrari GTO. After paying $500,000, he takes it out for a spin and stops at a red light. While waiting for the light to change, an frail looking old man on a yellow moped pulls up next to him. The old man looks over at the Ferrari and asks, "What kind of car ya' got there, Sonny?"
The young man replies, "A Ferrari GTO. It cost half a million dollars!"
"Wheeewee... that's a lot of money," says the old man as he tucks his thumbs up against his suspenders. "Why does it cost so much?"
"Because this car can do up to 320 miles an hour!" states the banker proudly.
The moped driver asks, "Mind if I take a look inside?"
"No problem," replies the proud new owner. So the old man pokes his head in the window and looks around at all the bells and whistles lining the dashboard. Sitting back on his moped, the old man whistles and says, "That's a pretty nice car, all right... but I'll stick with my moped!"
Just then the light changes, so the banker decides to show the old man just what his car can do.
He floors it, and within 30 seconds, the speedometer reads 160 mph! Suddenly, he notices a yellow dot in his rear view mirror. It seems to be getting closer! He slows down to see what it could be, and suddenly... Whoooooosssshhhhh! Something blows by him, going much faster!
"What in the hell could be going faster than my Ferrari?" the young man asks himself. He floors the accelerator and takes the Ferrari up to 250 mph. Then, up ahead of him, he sees that it's the old man on the moped! Amazed that the moped could pass his Ferrari, he gives it more gas and passes the moped at 275 mph. Whoooooosssshhhhh!
He's feeling pretty good until he looks in his mirror and sees the old man gaining on him again!
Dumbfounded, the banker floors the gas pedal and takes the Ferrari all the way up to 320 mph.
Not ten seconds later, he sees the moped bearing down on him again!
The Ferrari red lines and there's nothing more he can do! Suddenly, the moped plows into the back of his Ferrari, demolishing the rear end. The young man stops and jumps out, and unbelievably, the old man is still alive. He runs up to the mangled old man and says, "Oh my God! Is there anything I can do for you?"
The old man whispers with his dying breath... "Unhook... my... suspenders... from... your.... side view mirror."

But as education makes you more and more astute, jokes sound more and more like children's tales, where you have to wait for the "moral of the story" at the end.  A joke is a form of adolescent tutoring, where you have to be patient and listen carefully, build up a certain tension and expectation within, exercise your comprehension skills, and then admire the speaker as he delivers the finale.

So, the postmodern variation of the joke is the "anti-joke".  The anti-joke deflates the expectation of a surprise punch-line and delivering in its absence, a wholly sensible ending.  Because this subverts the usual jocular convention, it is therefore a surprise in its own right, and can lead to a chuckle for those who have "heard it all".  There is a whole category of anti-jokes which derive their force from the listener already knowing the original joke.  The listener is therefore expecting the usual punchline and is slightly bored while waiting for it.  And therefore the joke is renewed, and a chuckle is re-born, when instead of the original punch-line, there is something surprising.

Here are a few anti-jokes which assume a familiarity with their original/traditional versions:

What does a Rolex thief have in common with a Peeping Tom?
One snatches watches, and the other spies on women in various states of undress. Both activities are illegal in any civilized society.
Why is 18 afraid of 19?
Because 6 is afraid of 7. So it could be slightly larger numbers are naturally scary, especially if they are prime.

Then there are those which end with a rather literal solution to a riddle, thus outsmarting the listener who is thinking of something really arcane and smart.  It is not unlike the m.o. of the guessing prodigy in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter".  Such jokes understand the intelligence of the listener, and result in a laugh because one realizes that there was no need of finding a smart, witty answer.

Here we go:

What has more holes than a piece of Swiss cheese?
Two pieces of Swiss cheese.
What did the farmer say after he lost his tractor?
"Where's my tractor?"
What makes even the most jaded man smile?
Facial muscles.
This image basically sums up the 90s.
What did the man named Jose say when someone asked him if his name was Jose?

A third category of anti-jokes deliver an exposition about a presumed misunderstanding instead of a punch-line.  And one can either roll one's eyes or be edified:

A dyslexic man walks into a bra.
He was absentmindedly wandering through the women's clothing section in the supermarket on his way to look for a new toaster oven and not adequately watching where he was going.

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