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SUNDAY, OCTOBER 13, 2019

WHAT IS IN A JOKE?

Jackson

2010-06-22 16:56:30

Other

Response to: Students are Stupid by Hogan
"A joke should be judged by how funny it is (or isn't), not by its potential to hurt people's feelings" ~Hogan

"Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand." ~Twain

A joke is, essentially, a way of making people laugh. Beyond that, however, and into the labyrinthine halls of the rhetoric of humor, jokes are seen to be much deeper tools of communication. Humor (and jokes) are a way to express and process the absurd. Satire is one of the most potent tools humorist-critics have in their arsenal. Satire works by taking a point, say an article of a political figure's platform, and crating a classic reductio ad absurdum out of it, where the 'absurd conclusion' is humorous. The effect is to make the audience laugh and say 'oh, how absurd 's platform is'.
Watch the Colbert report for a really good example of satire. I'd recommend a specific part of the show, or a selected episode, but really, Colbert's entire program is solid, hardcore satire. Also, however, note that some of the satire Colbert delivers, primarily to his guests, is satirical satire: he makes them seem ridiculous to demonstrate how ridiculous objections against them are. Seriously, Colbert does this brilliantly. Watch him talk to a thoughtful author about their new book and he will make their whole book sound ridiculous and sometimes even politically subversive. For mother's day he tore apart the author of a book about, well, mothers. He wasn't actually making fun of the author, though, he was making fun of people who overreact to every new book and idea hostilely, and with suspicion.

Essentially, humor is a very powerful weapon. Like weapons, the 'goodness' of a joke is determined by its effectiveness, and nothing else. The effectiveness of humor may be measured in its ability to make someone laugh, to make an unbearable situation manageable, or to hurt someone. Some jokes, I would argue, are judged to be better because they cause more hurt than others; if someone tells a joke in order to hurt, or motivate others to hurt, then the damage inflicted is the metric of success.
Let's say that Anne Coulter wants to speak to people about the state of terrorism countermeasures at airports; she says that banning arabs from international flights is ok becasue they could always hitch a camel or hop on a flying carpet. The purpose of such a comment seems to be to prejudice people against the freedom of movement of Arab Nationals. If the audience is receptive, and then adopt her rhetoric when making decisions regarding their own oppinions towards terrorism, then Anne Coulter has told a good joke: it worked.

In this way, humor is exactly like a weapon. A gun's 'goodness' is determined by it's stopping power. Whether a gun is used for offense or defense, assault or protection, it is judged according to it's ability to disable its target. We do not, however, commend the stopping power of a gun used in a murder; we lament that such a dangerous weapon found its way into a murderer's hands.

Humor is to firearms as jokes are to bullets. I think a bullet, inert on a shelf, is neutral. As soon as someone etches a name into the bullet and decides who they will fire it at, the bullet becomes bound to some intention or other. So too, a joke is neutral only as long as it has no target; if an incomplete joke is sitting on a shelf - devoid of a target - then who can say if it is good or bad? The targetless joke is like an unfired bullet - if it is well made and capable of doing it's job well, then only it's craftsmanship matters: only the funniness of the joke is relevant.

Take the following 'unfired joke' as an example:

What's the difference between (A) and (B)? The (A) can (complete some task that B cannot)

So, for example, a joke about the quality of ikea furniture, told to my eights grade class, might sound like this:

What's the difference between an Ikea bed and one of the desks in my classroom? Kids have no trouble falling alseep in the desks...

So har har, eh? Yes, the joke is funny, but make it about a racial minority, a pizza, and thre ability of the latter to feed a family, and that same joke becomes differnet. The ikea joke is a tool used to make students aware of a chronic sleeping problem in my class, without being antagonistic; the minority joke would be used to make one group laugh at the expense of another. Just as one bullet may be used to stop an aggressive animal from attacking a hiker and another (from the same box) may be used to murder, so too may a good and useful joke be re-tooled to do bad.
Actually, told in the right environement, Anne Coulter's joke about camel-and-carpet arabs may have been very productive. What if the same joke were used to demonstrate that banning people from airports is, in fact, debilitating because there exist no alternatives to flight (such as carpets). Humor is very finicky and the rules governing its use are as fragile as human life.

As always, I must go before I finish this article. Thanks for listeing to another incomplete thought...
Comments

Jackson

Jackson

2010-06-22 17:01:02

If anyone is wondering why I use the term 'Goodness' in such a particular way, I would have preffered to use the words virtu or arete, but I didn't feel like explaining them.



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