Jokes, Laughter and Literature

This post was contributed by James Brown, from Birkbeck’s External Relations Department.

One of the first books I owned was Allan Ahlberg’s Ha Ha Bonk joke book. A collection of mostly bad puns and word play. As a child, I used to bring terror on holiday in joke book form, by forcing family members to relive my favourite jokes until they pleaded for mercy – a kind of verbal waterboarding. The title of the book is a promise that the jokes will make you laugh so hard that your head will fall off, which is a rash promise given quite how subjective jokes are. Standard fare is “What happened to the man who stole a calendar? He got twelve months.” Ha ha. Bonk.

But, as Adam Smyth (Birkbeck lecturer in Renaissance Literature) explained at Jokes, Laughter and Literature (part of Birkbeck’s Arts Week) joke books and their popularity or otherwise are nothing new. In 1600, twelve years after his death, Tarlton’s Jests was published as a collection of the jokes of Richard Tarlton. He was a renowned clown and actor of the day, who is said to have been a favourite of Queen Elizabeth, and whose witticisms and songs were extremely popular at the time. Unfortunately, his humour may not have found favour with William Shakespeare. An original draft of Hamlet has the Prince warning Yorick of the perils of overacting clowns, performing jokes that the audience already knows. Tarlton had been a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the theatre group for whom Shakespeare wrote much of his work, and Yorick is said to be based on him.

Lecturer in Modern Literature Kate McLoughlin went on to talk us through the three main theories in philosophy for why people find jokes funny. Perhaps Shakespeare is indulging in Thomas Hobbes’ theory of superiority, which is that generally we laugh at other people’s misfortune. In Tarlton’s case, he’d just died, and misfortune doesn’t get much more misfortunate than that. But misfortune in itself surely can’t be enough. I went to an open mic night at a comedy club recently, where the floor was open to anyone brave enough to give five minutes of their best jokes. I’m in awe of anyone who has the courage to stand in front of a room full of strangers asserting that they’re funny enough for you to want to pay to hear their jokes, but the results were mixed; for some, the loudest response to their one-liners was the sound of dreams being ruthlessly crushed. Those who didn’t raise a laugh were misfortunate; but sadly weren’t funny.

On the other hand, Immanuel Kant’s Incongruity Theory has it that finding something funny revolves around derailed expectations, with the best punch lines being unpredictable. It would be interesting to find out how Kant thought his theory stacked up against an episode of My Family, but by the time the sitcom was written Kant had died a couple hundred years ago, as indeed had some of the jokes. But neither does the theory explain why catchphrase comedy is, or at least has been, so popular – where knowing exactly what a character is going to say, and the anticipation of it, is from where much of the audience derives humour. Sigmund Freud’s theory of what humans find funny is the relief theory, that we funnel energy from sexual repression or pent-up emotion; as a ritual to ward off tension. It’s certainly true that laughter can release tension, but is that the same as saying that jokes are what causes relief?

American journalist HL Menken said that “a philosopher is a blind man in a dark room looking for a black cat which isn’t there”. I’m no more qualified to say what makes people laugh than a giraffe is to breakdance. Perhaps it’s easier to say what’s absolutely not funny. To return to the comedy club, it’s relatively easy to define what’s not funny. A full two years after its creation, one of the aspiring comedians opened their set with a line about how the iPad sounds like it’s a feminine product.

Ha ha indeed. But definitely no bonk.

Share

One thought on “Jokes, Laughter and Literature

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *