Professional comedy has become so pervasive in the United States, and so influential in shaping opinion, that the mere failure of a joke to appear when it's needed worries the country's leading newspaper. A week ago The New York Times front page featured a 1,400-word report on the failure of TV comedy writers to create a boffo Barack Obama joke.
From The Daily Show to Jay Leno, elite writing squads confess dismal failure: They just can't get a handle on the guy. They proved long ago that they can churn out thousands of words on George Bush's stumbles with English usage or Bill Clinton's peculiar idea of sexual behaviour. John Mc-Cain is also easy. Jokes about his age have filled many a moment on David Letterman's show. But Obama? Well, as the Times reported with sadness, "no true punchlines have landed."
David Remnick of The New Yorker thought he had it nailed. A cartoon satirizing the imagined complaints of Obama's enemies would do the job. But his July 21 cover, showing Obama and his wife as dangerous Muslims, was greeted with indignation and incomprehension. As a highly responsible editor, Remnick felt he had to explain the meaning and social purpose of satire, though there was no chance at all that he would win over anyone who missed the joke in the first place. Remnick was learning first-hand that comedy is not only a public obsession but also a swampland, alive with dangers that the lighthearted can never anticipate.
The moment seems perfect for the lessons to be derived from Jim Holt's once-over-lightly Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes (Norton), a survey of humour ranging from antiquity to Larry David, with agreeable stops along the way for Gershon Legman (who wrote a pioneering work, Rationale of the Dirty Joke) and for such schlockmeisters as Freud, Milton Berle and Aristotle.
Analysis of comedy has a dubious reputation, expressed by E. B. White's argument that it's like dissecting a frog. The frog always dies.
Still, White did it anyway, and so does Holt. He deals with the superiority theory, which assumes that jokes express our pleasure in looking down on lesser creatures -- scorned ethnic groups, cuckolds, etc. (This would include young people like Letterman, 61, giggling over the decrepitude of McCain, 72.) Holt discusses how incongruity stimulates laughter by pulling together elements from different corners of our mind. (Oscar Wilde: "Work is the curse of the drinking classes".) He acknowledges the Freudian view that a dirty joke expresses hidden sexual urges.
Brief as it is, Holt's book delivers surprising information. He tells us that in ancient Rome it was possible to make jokes, even moderately dirty jokes, about lettuce. That was because some Romans believed lettuce aroused sexual desire and others believed it had the opposite effect. This made lettuce the punchline in two different categories of joke.
Holt lovingly describes the labour of collectors who compiled joke books, leaving posterity a feeling for the private life of their time. The ancients produced many, of which only one survived, the "Philogelos," from the fourth or fifth century CE. It has a joke about a talkative barber (Barber: "How shall I cut your hair?" Customer: "In silence!") and a joke about an absent-minded slavemaster (when a storm blows up at sea and the terrified slaves weep, he says: "Don't cry, I have freed you all in my will").
Holt himself finds each theory of humour covers only a part of the subject. He takes a narrow view of jokes, pretty well limiting himself to stories that one person tells another. The prodigious influence of the internet on the spreading of jokes doesn't interest him, and he has no time for literary comedians like S. J. Perelman and James Thurber. He devotes not a sentence to Woody Allen, a shrewd joke connoisseur and the funniest American star of his time until he became the saddest.
Holt's use of a quotation from Max Eastman (1883-1969) made me realize how much Holt ignores. Eastman's name evokes memories of jokes that don't interest Holt -- accidental jokes, jokes by critics, deadpan humour.
To amused observers, Eastman's career was a comedy of political extremes: A ferocious communist propagandist in the 1920s, he changed his mind in the late 1930s and spent the last few decades of his career as resident political thinker of the ... Reader's Digest.
Before that, in the 1930s, he started a literary feud that became a much-told joke in itself. It began when he reviewed Ernest Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon under the title Bull in the Afternoon. Jeering at Hemingway's macho pose, he wrote: "Come out from behind that false hair on your chest, Ernest. We all know you."
Obviously, it was a joke framed as a metaphor. But Hemingway took it literally. When he encountered Eastman in an office at Scribner's, their mutual publisher, Hemingway (who claimed later that he approached the subject in a playful manner) bared his chest to prove it was authentically hirsute. He persuaded Eastman to open his shirt, showing relatively sparse hair. But Hemingway grew angry when he saw a book containing Bull in the Afternoon on the desk of a Scribner's editor: "I got sore. I tried to get him to read to me, in person, some of the stuff he had written about me. He wouldn't do it."
That's when Hemingway slapped Eastman -- with a book (title unknown). Eastman claimed that he threw Hemingway across a desk but Hemingway recalled: "He jumped at me like a woman --clawing, you know, with his open hands. I just held him off." The review was funny, the rumble at Scribner's funnier, but the best part was the story in The New York Times for Aug. 14, 1937, in which a solemn reporter tried to sort out what happened. In Timesstyle, he let not an ounce of obvious comedy pollute his news-page prose.
Holt quotes Eastman on the futility of trying to justify a joke someone doesn't find funny. To do that you must imagine yourself totally humourless and yet for some reason minutely concerned with the joke. "That is not funny," Eastman said, and "it is not fun." Don't explain, was his advice. Alas, David Remnick was in no position to embrace that wise counsel.