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There are so many others I could name, those who have done me the blessed favor of laughing at my jokes, and have made me laugh at theirs. I have done my best to name them all, or as many as I can remember in the footnotes that constitute this book's scholarship, and I will leave it at that except for three special people I must mention. Both my children have tolerated my jokes since they were born. But more. Shoshannah Cohen does me the very great favor of passing on to me jokes she does not care for, knowing me so well that she knows that I will like them, and caring enough for me to give them to me.

She teaches me literature, and many other things, and she gives me those jokes. Every father should have a daughter like that. Amos Cohen has done me the mitzvah of deploying his natural concern for depth and meaning to the jokes he comes across, and then instructing me. I hope I am worthy. Andy Austin Cohen, my wife, is the most remarkably versatile person I have known.

She is comfortable with professors and scientists and policemen and judges and lawyers and members of high society and musicians and. And she loves jokes.


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She takes them from, and tells them to, all those different kinds of people. Many things make a marriage, and we have more than a few, including endless conversation, and some of our conversation is the consideration of jokes with regard to predicting who will like them and who will not. She is very nearly infallible. In other ways, as well.

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Page 1 1 Introduction A philosopher once said, "Don't take it as a matter of course, but as a remarkable fact, that pictures and fictitious narratives give us pleasure, occupy our minds. The fact of jokesthe fact that there are such thingsis something of note, something worth thinking about. Jokes are the only kind of humor this book is about, strictly speaking, and by 'jokes' I mean only a few particular kinds of contrivance. I believe that the descriptions I will attempt of these things apply as well to other forms of humor, including comedy. I will say something about how jokes work at least some of them , why we use jokes, what 5 they achieve, and what their existence may show about those of us who love them.

It may be that these remarks would apply to many of the ways in which we make ourselves laugh, but I offer them only as remarks about jokes. Most of the jokes I have in mind are of two kinds. One is the kind of joke that is a very short storyfictional, beginning with a description of people, their things, 1. Page 2 and their actions, and ending with a very concise conclusion usually a single sentence called 'the punch line'.

Such jokes typically begin with openings like The Pope decides to have a garden made inside the Vatican. The other kind of joke is more obviously formulaic. Examples are lightbulb-changing jokes, and what are called 'ethnic jokes', among others. These jokes typically begin with a question, like How many Christian Scientists does it take to change a lightbulb?

These two kinds of formula jokes exhibit different logical forms, so to speak. One holds the ethnicity constant, and changes the task. For instance, How does an Irishman build a house, drink a Guinness, drive a car? The other kind of formula holds the task constant and changes the agent. For instance, How does a Pole or a psychiatrist or a Jewish mother change a lightbulb? Page 3 But sometimes both logical forms are at work. How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb?

And the distinction may also be blurred between formula jokes and short story jokes. A joke that begins An Irish golfer hooked his drive into the woods. When he went to look, he couldn't find his ball, but he captured a leprechaun. Many jokes are usefully thought of as solutions to problems that have been set, and they may well be created in that way.

Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters

In this respect they bear a faint resemblance to problems of simultaneous equations in elementary algebra. Of course there is a technique in fact a perfectly mechanical one for solving this problem, but one might dispense with that and simply try to see the solution. Thus one tries to answer How many members of the Spartacist Youth League does it take to change a lightbulb? When it works, this joke will work because its audience brings to the joke its own awareness of certain assumptions about the characteristics of Spartacist Youth League members and, of course, its knowledge of lightbulb-changing.

It is an essential feature of the joke that it not itself contain instruction in the characteristics of Sparts, but that it presume this knowledge in the audience.


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  5. A great many jokes enjoy this kind of concision, presuming their audiences able to supply a requisite background, and exploiting this background. This fact is a key Page 4 to understanding the insinuating quality of jokes, a way in which they force their audiences to join in the joke.

    If making up a joke were the same as solving an equation, then everyone could do it. Everyone could learn to do it. Some people would be quicker at it than others, and some people would be more reliably accurate, but everyone would be able to do it. But not everyone is able to do it. Nor is everyone able to improve a given joke, say by replacing the Italian-tenor main character with an Israeli pianist.

    On the other hand, many who are unable to make up jokes are amused by them and may care for them so much that they seek them out and collect them and tell them to others. And yet there are people who do not care for jokes, and are seldom if ever amused by them. There is no formula for making up jokes, and not everyone can do it.

    See a Problem?

    A joke cannot force everyone to be amused, and some people are unamused by some jokes. Some people are not amused by any jokes. These facts about jokes are interesting, and perhaps surprising. The striking similarities between jokes, figures of speech, and works of art are worth attention, and wonder, but I will pass them over in this book about jokes, except for noting one similarity here, and a few others in later sections, especially when I describe using jokes as devices for inducing intimacy.

    Here I note that there is a normal practice of joke-telling that may itself be assumed for purposes of making ''second level" jokes, just as normal practices of art-making and art-appreciating make possible a kind of second level art. By "assuming the practice of joke-telling" I do not mean doing so only in order to tell a joke-within-a-joke, although such an embedded joke does play on this background. An example of that is this story, presented to me explicitly as an English joke, which I heard years ago in Alberta: Page 5 A man told this joke to a group of acquaintances, including an Englishman.

    A man walked into a saloon, sat at the bar, and ordered a martini. When the drink had been put in front of him, before he could touch it, a monkey that had been sitting on the bar a few yards away walked over to the drink, straddled it, and bent until his genitals were in the drink. In horror the patron said to the bartender, 'Did you see that? When he was asked why he didn't like the joke, he replied that he had not understood it.

    It was then explained to him that the expression 'Do you know. I learned this story several years ago, after I had delivered a lecture at the University of Lethbridge, in Alberta. I am distressed to have forgotten the name of the Lethbridge professor who told me the story and he told it very well during the course of a conversation about the relation of Canada to England. Page 6 significantly exploit the joke-telling background. Nor does this one, although it does presuppose at least a minimal acquaintance with normal lightbulb-changing jokes: How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    This next joke does play upon a joke-telling background, although it is not simply a joke, but is a kind of limerick-incorporating joke, and also requires of its audience some familiarity with limericks and the problems of constructing and remembering them: One day a Church of England reverend is visited in his rectory by one of his parishioners. I think this is it: There once was a young man named Skinner Who had a young lady to dinner.

    They sat down to dine At a quarter till nine, And by it was in her. Skinner was in her. I think this is it: There once was a young man named Tupper Who had a young lady to supper. First they had tea At a quarter till three, And by it was up her. The supper? The Urexample, I suppose, is this: A boy owned a dog that was uncommonly shaggy. Many people remarked on its considerable shagginess. When the boy learned that there are contests for shaggy dogs, he entered his dog, and the dog won first place for shagginess in local and regional competitions.

    The boy entered the dog in ever-larger contests, until finally he entered his dog in the world championship for shaggy dogs. When the judges had inspected all the competitor dogs, they remarked about the boy's dog, "He's not so shaggy. They play upon a pre3. Kenneth Northcott favored me with this gem, and he did it perfectly, with just the right tone and accent for the relevant British clergymen. I have discovered that in order to remember it, it is very useful to tell it at least once every few months. Page 8 sumed background known to the audience, namely the background of normal joke-telling or art-exhibiting.

    Thus oriented, the audience approaches this item with expectations that are either simply disappointed or met in an utterly unexpected manner. Thus John Cage's Four minutes, 33 seconds is given to an audience expecting to hear audible musical events, and the audience hears no traditional music.

    The story about the shaggy dog is given to people listening to the narrative and expecting it to culminate in a punch line of a certain kind.