Stop Me If You've Heard This by Jim Holt
Natalie Haynes is not amused by a new study of humour
Defining a joke is incredibly difficult. We all know what we mean by a knock-knock joke, or a three-men-walk-into-a-pub joke. And we probably agree on what constitutes a one-liner, even if that one line needs a set-up to make sense. But beyond that, it becomes very difficult to say that one thing is a joke and another, equally humorous, thing is not. A shaggy dog story is technically a joke, surely – it’s told in the same context as a knock-knock joke, it’s prefaced with the same self-deprecating “Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but there’s an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotman…”. But if you don’t find it funny, is it still a joke? Or is it just a story? And when you read a putdown from Oscar Wilde or Winston Churchill, would you say they were jokes because they make you laugh? Or does the lack of formal structure, their dependence on context (usually an ill-advised question) make them something other than a joke – a bon mot, perhaps, or a witticism? One of my favourite jokes appears in the film Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, where Dorothy Parker, sitting in her hospital bed after an unsuccessful wrist-slash, and allowed visitors for the first time, is faced with a roomful of her Algonquin cronies. “Look, Mrs Parker,” someone says, “all your friends are here.” She eyes the room weakly and says, “Yes. And Paula.” Joke or not a joke?
Well, you too can fail to find answers to any of these questions in Stop Me If You’ve Heard This. A slight book with big ambitions, its subtitle bills it as a history and philosophy of jokes. Sadly, this is misleading in both categories. The history section is extremely sketchy, and limits its definition of “joke” to a one or two-liner, the kind of thing one might find in a joke book, or from a persistent and ever-present eight-year-old. There’s very little mention of the wider definition of humour, or jokes which have a less formal structure. Which is presumably how Jim Holt managed to compose a history of jokes which mentions Aristophanes once, and so fleetingly that he doesn’t even make the index. And since the Romans created satire, which is packed with jokes, from Juvenal’s long, corruscating tirades to Martial’s elegant epigrams, it’s a shame that they don’t get a look-in either.
But it’s not just the ancients who are ignored – if you’re looking for an overview of jokes even from the mid-20th century to the present day, and only in America, you won’t find it here. Bobs Hope and Newhart might as well not have existed, Woody Allen has disappeared, and while there’s brief mention of Garry Shandling and Sarah Silverman, the most successful comedian (certainly financially) of the modern era, Jerry Seinfeld, is overlooked. And this is a man whose jokes were so iconic that they made it on to the Waterstones plastic bags. Jokes are definitely an all-white affair, too – no Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock or Eddie Murphy.
The philosophy section is pretty limited as well – it’s actually a history of the philosophy of humour, rather than anything more incisive or original. Infuriatingly, the focus shifts from the very specific types of joke in the first, historical section (what I would call gags) to a much broader spectrum – “the aesthetic category of the humorous, the comical, or the funny”. One wonders why the editor didn’t notice that the two halves didn’t add up to a satisfying or even especially coherent whole.
This book began life as an essay for the New Yorker on the history of jokes and joke collectors, and that is pretty much what it still is, with some pictures to bulk up the page count. And it appears to have been typeset by someone with no sense of how a joke even works. No one seems to have thought that when a joke is written instead of spoken, punctuation and layout are the equivalent of timing. Do you know what’s more annoying than a feeble joke? A feeble joke where the set-up is at the bottom of one page, and the punchline is two pages and several pictures later. Boom boom.
Stop Me If You've Heard This is published by Profile