A joke is something spoken, written, or done with humorous intention. Jokes may have many different forms, e.g., a single word or a gesture (considered in a particular context), a question-answer, or a whole short story. The word "joke" has a number of synonyms, including wisecrack, gag, prank, quip, jape and jest. To achieve their end, jokes may employ irony, sarcasm, word play and other devices. Jokes may have a punch line, i.e., an ending to make it humorous.
A practical joke or prank differs from a spoken joke in that the major component of the humour is physical rather than verbal (for example placing salt in the sugar bowl).
Jokes are typically for the entertainment of friends and onlookers. The desired response is generally laughter; when this does not happen the joke is said to have "fallen flat" or "bombed". However, jokes have other purposes and functions, common to comedy/humour/satire in general.
Antiquity of jokes
Jokes have been a part of human culture since at least 1900 BC. According to research conducted by Dr Paul McDonald of the University of Wolverhampton, a fart joke from ancient Sumer is currently believed to be the world's oldest known joke. Britain's oldest joke, meanwhile, is a 1,000-year-old double-entendre that can be found in the Codex Exoniensis.
A recent discovery of a document called Philogelos (The Laughter Lover) gives us an insight into ancient humour. Written in Greek by Hierocles and Philagrius, it dates to the third or fourth century AD, and contains some 260 jokes. Considering humour from our own culture as recent as the 19th century is at times baffling to us today, the humour is surprisingly familiar. They had different stereotypes: the absent-minded professor, the eunuch, and people with hernias or bad breath were favourites. A lot of the jokes play on the idea of knowing who characters are:
A barber, a bald man and an absent-minded professor take a journey together. They have to camp overnight, and so decide to take turns watching the luggage. When it's the barber's turn, he gets bored, so he amuses himself by shaving the head of the professor. When the professor is woken up for his shift, he feels his head, and says "How stupid is that barber? He's woken up the bald man instead of me."
There is even a joke similar to Monty Python's "Dead Parrot sketch": a man buys a slave, who dies shortly afterwards. When he complains to the slave merchant, he is told: "He didn't die when I owned him." Comic Jim Bowen has presented them to a modern audience. "One or two of them are jokes I've seen in people's acts nowadays, slightly updated. They put in a motor car instead of a chariot - some of them are Tommy Cooper-esque."
Psychology of jokes
Why people laugh at jokes has been the subject of serious academic study, examples being:
- Immanuel Kant, in Critique of Judgement (1790) states that "Laughter is an effect that arises if a tense expectation is transformed into nothing." Here is Kant's two-century old joke and his analysis:
An Englishman at an Indian's table in Surat saw a bottle of ale being opened, and all the beer, turned to froth, rushed out. The Indian, by repeated exclamations, showed his great amazement. - Well, what's so amazing in that? asked the Englishman. - Oh, but I'm not amazed at its coming out, replied the Indian, but how you managed to get it all in. - This makes us laugh, and it gives us a hearty pleasure. This is not because, say, we think we are smarter than this ignorant man, nor are we laughing at anything else here that it is our liking and that we noticed through our understanding. It is rather that we had a tense expectation that suddenly vanished...
- Henri Bergson, in his book Le rire (Laughter, 1901), suggests that laughter evolved to make social life possible for human beings.
- Sigmund Freud's "Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious". (Der Witz und seine Beziehung zum Unbewußten).
- Arthur Koestler, in The Act of Creation (1964), analyses humour and compares it to other creative activities, such as literature and science.
- Marvin Minsky in Society of Mind (1986).
- Marvin Minsky suggests that laughter has a specific function related to the human brain. In his opinion jokes and laughter are mechanisms for the brain to learn nonsense. For that reason, he argues, jokes are usually not as funny when you hear them repeatedly.
- Edward de Bono suggests that the mind is a pattern-matching machine, and that it works by recognising stories and behaviour and putting them into familiar patterns. When a familiar connection is disrupted and an alternative unexpected new link is made in the brain via a different route than expected, then laughter occurs as the new connection is made. This theory explains a lot about jokes. For example:
- Why jokes are only funny the first time they are told: once they are told the pattern is already there, so there can be no new connections, and so no laughter.
- Why jokes have an elaborate and often repetitive set up: The repetition establishes the familiar pattern in the brain. A common method used in jokes is to tell almost the same story twice and then deliver the punch line the third time the story is told. The first two tellings of the story evoke a familiar pattern in the brain, thus priming the brain for the punch line.
- Why jokes often rely on stereotypes: the use of a stereotype links to familiar expected behaviour, thus saving time in the set-up.
- Why jokes are variants on well-known stories (e.g. the genie and a lamp and a man walks into a bar): This again saves time in the set up and establishes a familiar pattern.
- In 2002, Richard Wiseman conducted a study intended to discover the world's funniest joke . Some elements of jokes have been observed in the Laugh Factory's report :
- a feeling of superiority over the subject of the joke.
- a sudden realization of a misconception (or of an over thought premise) or the realization that a subject has made an incongruous decision
- edgy dialogue about sensitive topics such as marriage, morality, and illness.
- that in animal jokes, those that feature ducks are the most funny
The Benign Violation Theory (BVT), developed by Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren, contends that jokes are humorous when people perceive something threatening in the joke (i.e., a violation), they perceive the joke to be benign, and hold both perceptions simultaneously. For example, the joke, “Did you hear about the guy who’s left side was cut off? He’s all right now,” relies on the double meaning of the word all right/alright to suggest that a person has both been cut in half (a violation) and that he is okay (benign). Changing the punch line in a way that makes it harder to see either the violation (e.g., He’s okay now) or the benign interpretation (e.g., He lost half of his body) makes the joke (much) less humorous.
Many people also look to contextual jokes as a coping mechanism to get through hard times. This is referred to as, survivor humor in which jokes are designed specifically for those who have been through an extreme tragedy. People who did not experience the tragedy are not likely to fully appreciate these jokes.
Jokes in organizations
Jokes can be employed by workers as a way to identify with their jobs. For example, 9-1-1 operators often crack jokes about incongruous, threatening, or tragic situations they deal with on a daily basis. This use of humour and cracking jokes helps employees differentiate themselves from the people they serve while also assisting them in identifying with their jobs. In addition to employees, managers use joking, or jocularity, in strategic ways. Some managers attempt to suppress joking and humour use because they feel it relates to lower production, while others have attempted to manufacture joking through pranks, pajama or dress down days, and specific committees that are designed to increase fun in the workplace.
The rules of humour are analogous to those of poetry. These common rules are mainly timing, precision, synthesis, and rhythm. French philosopher Henri Bergson has said in an essay: "In every wit there is something of a poet." In this essay Bergson views the essence of humour as the encrustation of the mechanical upon the living. He used as an instance a book by an English humorist, in which an elderly woman who desired a reputation as a philanthropist provided "homes within easy hail of her mansion for the conversion of atheists who have been specially manufactured for her, so to speak, and for a number of honest folk who have been made into drunkards so that she may cure them of their failing, etc." This idea seems funny because a genuine impulse of charity as a living, vital impulse has become encrusted by a mechanical conception of how it should manifest itself.
To reach precision, the comedian must choose the words in order to provide a vivid, in-focus image, and to avoid being generic as to confuse the audience, and provide no laughter. To properly arrange the words in the sentence is also crucial to get precision.
The joke's content (meaning) is not what provokes the laugh, it just makes the salience of the joke and provokes a smile. What makes us laugh is the joke mechanism. Milton Berle demonstrated this with a classic theatre experiment in the 1950s: if during a series of jokes you insert phrases that are not jokes, but with the same rhythm, the audience laughs anyway. A classic is the ternary rhythm, with three beats: Introduction, premise, antithesis (with the antithesis being the punch line).
In regards to the Milton Berle experiment, they can be taken to demonstrate the concept of "breaking context" or "breaking the pattern". It is not necessarily the rhythm that caused the audience to laugh, but the disparity between the expectation of a "joke" and being instead given a non-sequitur "normal phrase." This normal phrase is, itself, unexpected, and a type of punchline—the anti-climax.
In the comic field plays the 'economy of ideative expenditure'; in other words excessive energy is wasted or action-essential energy is saved. The profound meaning of a comic gag or a comic joke is "I'm a child"; the comic deals with the clumsy body of the child.
Laurel and Hardy are a classic example. An individual laughs because he recognises the child that is in himself. In clowns stumbling is a childish tempo. In the comic, the visual gags may be translated into a joke. For example, in Side Effects (By Destiny Denied story) by Woody Allen:
"My father used to wear loafers," she confessed. "Both on the same foot".
The typical comic technique is the disproportion.
In the wit field plays the "economy of censorship expenditure" (Freud calls it "the economy of psychic expenditure"); usually censorship prevents some 'dangerous ideas' from reaching the conscious mind, or helps us avoid saying everything that comes to mind; adversely, the wit circumvents the censorship and brings up those ideas. Different wit techniques allow one to express them in a funny way. The profound meaning behind a wit joke is "I have dangerous ideas". An example from Woody Allen:
I contemplated suicide again - this time by inhaling next to an insurance salesman.
Or, when a bagpipe player was asked "How do you play that thing?" his answer was "Well." Wit is a branch of rhetoric, and there are about 200 techniques (technically they are called tropes, a particular kind of figure of speech) that can be used to make jokes.
Irony can be seen as belonging to this field.
In the comedy field, humour induces an "economised expenditure of emotion" (Freud calls it "economy of affect" or "economy of sympathy". Freud produced this final part of his interpretation many years later, in a paper later supplemented to the book.). In other words, the joke erases an emotion that should be felt about an event, making us insensitive to it.e.g.: "yo momma" jokes. The profound meaning of the void feeling of a humour joke is "I'm a cynic". An example from Woody Allen:
Three times I've been mistaken for Robert Redford. Each time by a blind person.
This field of jokes is still a grey area, being mostly unexplored. Extensive use of this kind of humour can be found in the work of British satirist Chris Morris, like the sketches of the Jam television program.
Folklorists, in particular (but not exclusively) those who study the folklore of the United States, collect jokes into joke cycles. A cycle is a collection of jokes with a particular theme or a particular "script". (That is, it is a literature cycle.) Folklorists have identified several such cycles:
- the Helen Keller Joke Cycle that comprises jokes about Helen Keller
- Viola jokes
- the NASA, Challenger, or Space Shuttle Joke Cycle that comprises jokes relating to the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster
- the Chernobyl Joke Cycle that comprises jokes relating to the Chernobyl disaster
- the Essex girl and the Stupid Irish joke cycles in the United Kingdom
- the Dead Baby Joke Cycle
- the Newfie Joke Cycle that comprises jokes made by Canadians about Newfoundlanders;
- the Little Willie Joke Cycle, and the Quadriplegic Joke Cycle
- the Jew Joke Cycle and the Polack Joke Cycle
- the Rastus and Liza Joke Cycle, which Dundes describes as "the most vicious and widespread white anti-Negro joke cycle"
- the Jewish American Princess and Jewish American Mother joke cycles
- The Wind-up doll joke cycle
- The blonde joke, lawyer joke and Microsoft joke cycles.
Gruner discusses several "sick joke" cycles that occurred upon events surrounding Gary Hart, Natalie Wood, Vic Morrow, Jim Bakker, Richard Pryor, Princess Diana and Michael Jackson, noting how several jokes were recycled from one cycle to the next. For example: A joke about Vic Morrow ("We now know that Vic Morrow had dandruff: they found his head and shoulders in the bushes") was subsequently recycled about Admiral Mountbatten, and again applied to the crew of the Challenger space shuttle ("How do we know that Christa McAuliffe had dandruff? They found her head and shoulders on the beach.").
Berger asserts that "whenever there is a popular joke cycle, there generally is some widespread kind of social and cultural anxiety, lingering below the surface, that the joke cycle helps people deal with".
Types of jokes
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Jokes often depend on the humour of the unexpected, the mildly taboo (which can include the distasteful or socially improper), or playing off stereotypes and other cultural beliefs. Many jokes fit into more than one category.
Political jokes are usually a form of satire. They generally concern politicians and heads of state, but may also cover the absurdities of a country's political situation. A prominent example of political jokes would be political cartoons. Two large categories of this type of jokes exist. The first one makes fun of a negative attitude to political opponents or to politicians in general. The second one makes fun of political clichés, mottoes, catch phrases or simply blunders of politicians. Some, especially the "you have two cows" genre, derive humour from comparing different political systems.
Professional humour includes caricatured portrayals of certain professions such as lawyers, and in-jokes told by professionals to each other.
Ethnic jokes exploit ethnic stereotypes. They are often racist and frequently considered offensive. For example, the British tell jokes starting "An Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman..." which exploit the supposed parsimony of the Scot, stupidity of the Irish or rigid conventionality of the English. Such jokes exist among numerous peoples.
Jokes based on other stereotypes (such as blonde jokes) are often considered funny.
Religious jokes fall into several categories:
- Jokes based on stereotypes associated with people of religion (e.g. nun jokes, priest jokes, or rabbi jokes)
- Jokes on classical religious subjects: crucifixion, Adam and Eve, St. Peter at The Gates, etc.
- Jokes that collide different religious denominations: "A rabbi, a medicine man, and a pastor went fishing..."
- Letters and addresses to God.
Self-deprecating or self-effacing humour is superficially similar to racial and stereotype jokes, but involves the targets laughing at themselves. It is said to maintain a sense of perspective and to be powerful in defusing confrontations. A common example is Jewish humour. A similar situation exists in the Scandinavian "Ole and Lena" joke.
Self-deprecating humour has also been used by politicians, who recognise its ability to acknowledge controversial issues and steal the punch of criticism. For example, when Abraham Lincoln was accused of being two-faced he replied, "If I had two faces, do you think this is the one I'd be wearing?".
Surrealist or minimalist jokes exploit semantic inconsistency, for example: Q: What's red and invisible? A: No tomatoes..
An elephant joke is a joke, almost always a riddle joke or conundrum and often a sequence of connected riddles, frequently operating on a surrealistic, anti-humorous or meta-humorous level, that involves an elephant.
Dark humour is often used in order to deal with a difficult situation in a manner of "if you can laugh at it, it won't kill you". Usually those jokes make fun of tragedies like death, accidents, wars, catastrophes or injuries.
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The question/answer joke, sometimes posed as a common riddle, has a supposedly straight question and an answer which is twisted for humorous effect; puns are often employed. Of this type are knock-knock joke, light bulb joke, the many variations on "why did the chicken cross the road?", and the class of "What's the difference between a _______ and a ______" joke, where the punch line is often a pun or a spoonerism linking two apparently entirely unconnected concepts.
Some jokes require a double act, where one respondent (usually the straight man) can be relied on to give the correct response to the person telling the joke. This is more common in performance than informal joke-telling.
A shaggy dog story is an extremely long and involved joke with an intentionally weak or completely non-existent punchline. The humour lies in building up the audience's anticipation and then letting them down completely. The longer the story can continue without the audience realising it is a joke, and not a serious anecdote, the more successful it is.
- Comedy genres
- Computational humour
- East Frisian jokes
- Internet humour
- Irish jokes
- Island joke
- Jest book
- Joke chess problem
- Mathematical joke
- Polish joke
- Practical jokes
- Punch line
- Roman jokes
- Russian jokes
- Stand-up comedy
- The Funniest Joke in the World
- World's funniest joke
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