Holt tells us that joke books became routine after the first one was published in English in 1484. Jokes remained fairly lowbrow until the middle of the 19th century when with especially the clever retort became prized in English culture. A typical joke concerned a hefty fellow rushing to Florence late one evening. He asked a peasant “Do you think I’ll be able to make it through the city gate?” The man replied, “Why if a cart of hay can make it through, you can, too!”
No one embodied this shift better than Oscar Wilde. Holt tells us that in the 1890s, poet Sir Lewis Morris complained to Wilde because he was not to be named England’s poet laureate. “It’s a complete conspiracy of silence against me,” Morris said, “a conspiracy of silence! What ought I to do, Oscar?” “Join it!” Wilde replied. While detailing this history, Holt discusses the three major theories of humor. The “superiority theory”, propounded by Plato and Groucho Marx, sees the essence of humor in mockery and derision, in the “sudden glory we feel when” those we dislike are leveled whether they be the high and mighty or members of religious and ethnic groups.
After researching about various television shows I found this joke from “Friends,” episodes two hundred and two. It is a dialogue between Chandler and Joey who are asking their friend Carol about breastfeeding. Chandler asks Carol, “Carol I was just wondering if Joey could ask you questions about breastfeeding?” Carol replies, “Sure.” Joey then asked her, “Uh, does it hurt?” Carol said, “Well, at first but not anymore.” Joey then says, “Oh. Chandler?” Chandler then asked Carol, “So uh, how often can you do it?” Carol replied, “As much as he needs.” Joey then said, “Oh okay I got one. Uh if he blows into one does the other one get bigger?”
There are topical jokes, perennial jokes, cultural jokes, and universal jokes like, “I was so unpopular when I was little, even my imaginary friend played with the kids across the street”. There are jokes about groups of people, jokes appropriate for polite company, and jokes that are dirty enough to be somewhat scandalous such as, George H. W. Bush’s favorite “How do you titillate an ocelot? You oscillate its tits a lot.” Then there are the political jokes, geographical jokes as well as jokes of various lengths one-liners, two-liners, long jokes, “shaggy dog” jokes, and even jokes of only two words: “Pretentious? Moi?” As with so many philosophical issues these days, perhaps only because of our current fashions of research, humor may simply come down to the neurological.
Using an electric probe to try to find the cause of a patient’s seizures, doctors stimulated a part of her left frontal lobe, eliciting a laugh. It happened over and over, and it was not just a mere physical reflex. She really did find things funny, whether she was looking at the operating team, or at a picture of a horse they showed her. Put a little current to the “L-spot” of the brain, and everything becomes a joke. There is little risk that neurosurgical procedures are going to impair the activities of joke-tellers, however; telling a joke is a simpler way of getting a laugh than doing brain probes, and anyway, whatever the purpose of jokes is, it probably cannot be accomplished in such an electromechanical way. Like many things, jokes are probably best appreciated for themselves and not for any thinking that they might inspire.
Holt’s little volume will inspire some thinking, but it also contains more than its share of good along with some bad jokes, including one that he has traced back in different forms which people have been laughing at for fifteen centuries. And he even includes a personal favorite of mine, a meta-joke: “A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says, `What is this, a joke?'”
According to Holt’s essay I found this joke from Friends to be a universal joke because it is appropriate for polite company. Everyone knows that men have no clue about babies or at least women are more experienced on that subject. This is what made the joke from Friends so funny to me because it allows all viewers to relate to Chandler and Joey’s curiosity regarding breastfeeding.
Family type jokes such as this one allow shows like Friends to become such a success. The joke regarding breastfeeding is a great example of Holt’s definition of a universal joke. I find universal jokes to be the funniest because they are funny enough to be able to enjoy with your family and in my opinion being able to have a good laugh with your family is a very important part of life.