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A joke (or gag) is a phrase or a paragraph with a humorous twist. It can be in many different forms, such as a question or short story. To achieve this end, jokes may employ irony, sarcasm, word play and other devices. Jokes may have a punchline that will end the sentence to make it humorous.Purpose
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, so decide to take turns watching the luggage. When it's the barber's turn, he gets bored, so 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 areTommy 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 220-year 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).
- 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 timethe 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.
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.Rules
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.Precision
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.Synthesis
That a joke is best when it expresses the maximum level of humour with a minimal number of words, is today considered one of the key technical elements of a joke. An example from George Carlin:
Though, the familiarity of the pattern of "brevity" has led to numerous examples of jokes where the very length is itself the pattern-breaking "punchline". Numerous examples from Monty Python exist, for instance, the song "I Like Traffic Lights". More recently, Family Guy often exploits such humour: for example in the episode "Wasted Talent", Peter Griffin bangs his shin, a classic slapstick routine, and tenderly nurses it while inhaling and exhaling to quiet the pain, for considerably longer than expected.[vague] Certain versions of the popular vaudevillian joke The Aristocrats can go on for several minutes, and it is considered an anti-joke, as the humour is more in the set-up than the punchline.[vague]Rhythm
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.Comic
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:
The typical comic technique is the disproportion.Wit
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:
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.Humour
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:
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.