23 July 2010

There are two Jews on a train . . .

I’ve been studying jokes. It is a funny enterprise to have undertaken, but the scherzo of my symphony demanded a repertoire of comedic events, and scholar that I think I am, I went out researching the subject. For weeks now I have been reading joke books (well, for years I had unmethodically memorized a great deal of Garrison Keillor’s Pretty Good Joke Book. I did not intend to commit the book to memory, but it’s just the book available to engage me when I’m blow-drying my hair. And some of the jokes are even pretty good!). I’ve actually become somewhat skilled at telling jokes, and so if you see me walking towards you, I might suggest you cross the street or be subject to a barrage of material I am practicing. Though I have to acknowledge that I am becoming not an inexperienced joke-teller, though my repertoire is severely limited.

Sigmund Freud wrote an entire book exploring the phenomenon of jokes: Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious. His clinical analysis takes a great deal of the humor out of many of the jokes he narrates, and he really doesn’t concentrate very much on delivery. He might have laughed heartily at several jokes when they were first told to him, but his need to analyze dampens the presentation.

Freud is concerned with understanding how jokes work and why we tell them. On one level Freud attributes the effectiveness of jokes to their “ability to provide pleasure against the objections raised by criticism that would put an end to pleasure.” In this sense, jokes permit me (us) to enjoy those things our superegos have declared it wrong (or too dangerous) to enjoy. Sex, Drugs and Rock n’ Roll, to speak metaphorically.

In my own work I have considered that jokes served as a form of protest against that world beyond my own superego (and even within that entity) that denies me pleasure. We rail against the world that abuses us physically or psychically with its power. Of course, the Marx Brothers are the quintessential exemplar of this stance: with their nonsense they debunk all attempts to make sense!! As Wagstaff, newly appointed President of Huxley College, Groucho begins his opening address, “Members of the faculty, faculty members; students of Huxley and Huxley students. I guess that covers everything. Well, I thought my razor was dull until I heard this speech, and that reminds me of a story that’s so dirty I’m ashamed to think of it myself.” The speech improves of course, but never makes more sense. Then again, how many such speeches do make sense? It’s just that the Marx Brothers wouldn’t fool themselves.

And so I find in Freud some support for my belief that jokes are a protest: he says that ‘tendentious jokes,’ those that express an opinion, say, are “useful in order to make aggressiveness or criticism possible against persons in exalted positions who claim to exercise authority.” In the Marx Brothers, all pomposity and authority is deflated, even that assumed by Groucho in his many positions of presumed authority. A tendentious joke—and the Marx Brothers made whole movies filled with them—is rebellion against authority.

Of course, this technique leads to a great number of offensive jokes: we are, after all, fearful of so many things whose authority we fear, though most of these fears are irrational terrors even as the presumed authority they maintain derives from our own sense of powerlessness. Trevor Griffiths, in his play Comedians, asks “Do we fear . . . other people . . . so much that we must mark their pain with laughter, our own with tears.” We have to learn to overcome some fears. We use jokes as a weapon sometimes to demonize others and protect ourselves. But we can learn through jokes to accept the fears as our own, and then the joke would be on us.

Freud tells us that the greater our sense of joy the less we have need for jokes. He writes, “It is most instructive to observe how the standards of joking sink as spirits rise.” I must say in these times we have a great need of jokes. Just look at any newspaper. Any day. Any time. Any where.


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