How Many Jokes Are There?
The origin of the idea that there are only seven kinds of jokes is a bit murky. A 1909 article in The New York Times, reported on the musings of someone described only as a professional funny man. “There are only seven jests in the world,” he says, “and even they can be boiled down into one. And that one can be covered by the simple word deformity.”
A snail was mugged by a slug. The police officer asked for a description of the attacker. The snail said "I can't give you one; it all happened so fast."
The archives are where Noah kept the bees.
Humour on the Couch
Sigmund Freud’s name does not conjure up the image of a headliner at Yuk Yuks Comedy Club. “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? One but the light bulb has to first want to change. I’m here all week folks. Try the lasagne.”
However, Freud wrote the textbook on jokes. In 1905 he published Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten, which was translated into English in 1960 as Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. It was an analysis of the techniques of humour and how it affects our psychological processes. It’s not very funny.
Freud’s analysis produced three kinds of jokes. Comic humour, he said, makes us laugh because we identify with someone else’s predicament; Charlie Chaplin made a fortune out of this type of humour. Jokes, often dirty ones, allow us to express thoughts that society says we ought to keep hidden.
The final group, Freud called these memetic jokes, are hostile and sometimes cruel pokes at various targets. Alec Baldwin’s parodies of Donald Trump come to mind. There’s a bit of darkness going on here. What’s happening, so the boffins say, is that it releases anger and allows us to deal with feelings of superiority to those we believe to be our inferiors; an acknowledgement we would rather keep secret.
Laughing at memetic jokes is about unconscious prejudices. Deep and dark stuff indeed.
Why are blonde jokes so dumb? So that men can understand them.
Only One Joke?
That humour expert from The New York Times article expanded on his single-joke thesis to state there are seven categories of jokes under the umbrella of distortion: the human body, spelling, truth, jumbled language, double entendre, pronunciation, and ideas.
In his 2011 book There are Only Seven Jokes, Glenn Grunenberger develops the thesis of the expert in the Times.
Although a case can be made that the one word that covers all humour should be surprise. Isn’t the essence of a joke that the listener is led to believe one thing only to be tricked by the surprise punch line?
They found his lordship lying face down in the library; his head apparently bashed in by a volume of "The Collected Works of William Shakespeare" bound in Moroccan leather. The famous detective called all of the staff into the morning room.
“Which one of you is Ruth? He asked.
The butler said “We don’t have anyone here called Ruth.”
“Just as I thought,” said the wily sleuth. “It’s a ruthless crime.”
Milton Jones Deals in One-Liners
Who would you go to for the definitive answer on this subject? Chuckles the Clown? No, an evolutionary theorist of course. And fortunately, there’s one ready and willing to weigh in.
Alastair Clarke has studied 20,000 examples of humour and says there are only eight ways to make people laugh, although he doesn’t mention tickling with a feather. The British evolutionary theorist says the eight-yuks rule applies across time and civilizations and it’s all about the surprise recognition of patterns.
So, let’s get to the nitty-gritty of Mr. Clarke’s theory. His eight jokes are: Positive repetition, division, completion, translation, applicative and qualitative recontextualization, opposition, and scale.
That applicative and qualitative recontextualization must be a real thigh-slapper. Distilling that phrase into something a PhD candidate and below can understand is a challenge. One this writer will leave unresolved. Also, left unresolved is the authoritative answer as to how many jokes there are. Sorry.
And, Then There’s Slapstick
The World's Funniest Joke
Professor Richard Wiseman teaches at the University of Hertfordshire, England. He went on a search for the world’s funniest joke. He tested 40,000 jokes with 100,000 people.
In 2002, he published the result of his quest.
Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. Back on the phone, the guy says “OK, now what?”
According to the BBC "Professor Wiseman said the joke contained all three elements of what makes a good gag - anxiety, a feeling of superiority, and an element of surprise."
A gentleman from Manchester, England was credited as the source of the joke, but it’s almost identical to a gag written by the great Spike Milligan in 1951 for “The Goon Show” on BBC Radio.
A harpist with the symphony died and arrived at St. Peter’s check-in desk. The guardian of the gates said “We’re behind in our registrations. Why don’t you pop across the hall to the disco, have a couple of pina coladas, and come back in three o’clock? The place is run by a pal of mine, Sam Plank, tell him I sent you.” So, off she went with her harp and returned at three o’clock. St. Peter asked “Where’s your instrument?” “Oh dang,” she said “I left my harp in Sam Plank’s disco.”
Sarcasm is the gap between the creator of a sarcastic comment and the person who fails to understand it.
- “I don’t usually listen to idiots, but in your case I’ll make an exception.”
- “I’m a perfectionist, just not a very good one.”
These two phrases are called paraprosdokians, which are figures of speech in which the second part forces the listener to reinterpret the first part.
“Can You Top This?” was a radio show on NBC in the 1940s and ‘50s. Listeners sent in jokes, as many as 6,000 a week, and a panel of comedians was asked to top the gag with one of their own on the same topic. If an audience member’s joke was used on air he or she received ten dollars.
- “There are Only Seven Jokes.” Glenn Grunenberger, Lulu.com, 2011.
- “The Source Of All Humor? Alastair Clarke’s 8 Patterns Of Recognition.” Science 2.0, March 20, 2009.
- “7 Kinds of Humor and What They Mean.” Gerald Schoenewolf, Psych Central, undated.
- "The Winning Joke." Laughlab.co.uk, 2002.
- "Spike 'wrote world's best joke.' " BBC, June 9, 2006.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor