Sunday, July 09, 2006

More on Ted Cohen: Jokes

Cohen argues that a major function of some jokes is the acceptance of absurdity. In fact, he says this is a major part of Jewish jokes and hence a large part of American jokes.

For example (the actual joke is much too long): a NY cabbie who is finally convinced to drive a fare to Chicago, through PA, OH, IN, IL, Lake Shore Drive, etc., two days and one night. So he drops the fare off at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago and two women get in his cab and ask to be taken to Flatbush Ave. "Sorry, I don't drive to Brooklyn," he says.

Cohen writes:

Those of us who laugh at these jokes are all laughing at the same kind of thing. It is something not fully comprehensible, and our laughter is an acceptance of the thing in its incomprehensibility. It is the acceptance of the world, of a world that is endlessly incomprehensible, always baffling, a world that is beyond us and yet our world. (60)

That seems to much to me. Perhaps some jokes are like this (and Cohen has many other examples). But just as often, and I think this is the really important point, we tell jokes not because we accept absurdity but because we criticize it. That's the case with the cabbie joke, above. We tell a joke to point out that something is absurd and hence wrong.

Two further points. First, this aspect of joke telling butts up against another, less appealing type of joke: ethnic jokes, e.g. Ethnic jokes often make fun of a person because of their ethnicity (not always, but often). Likewise, the type of joke I'm interested in makes fun of a person for not thinking straight.

Second, it isn't always failures of rationality that are the butt of jokes. Sometimes it is hyper-rationality that comes in for criticism. And how better to criticize hyper-rationality than with a joke? (After all, can you argue with the hyper-rational?)


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