Uncontrolled Respiratory Convulsions
You Think That’s Funny?
A joke is not a thing but a process, a trick you play on the listener's mind.
- Max Eastman
Analysing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
- E B White
To understand a country, you can study its economic data and demographic statistics. Or you can collect its jokes...
What is laughter? According to Darwin’s treatise “On the Expression of Emotion in Men and Animals”, it is a civilised form of a primitive lethal instinct, a sublimation of the ancient urge to kill. According to Jonathan Miller, a doctor and comedian, it is a respiratory convulsion over which we have little control. According to Howard Jacobson, a British writer, it is what you do when someone drops his trousers and whips out his, as it is known in the comedic business, knob.
Serious analysis of the nature of comedy tends to be horribly unfunny. Freud’s “Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious”, for example, fails to raise even the softest of chuckles. So this article will not attempt to grapple with the complex psychological and physiological questions about comedy. Instead, it will tell jokes. Its excuse for doing this is to ask: what is the world laughing at these days? In the eternal contest between those bully chaps who enjoy a laugh and the miserable dullards who seek to prevent them, who is winning?
High jokes and misdemeanours
The good news is that those with a sense of humour are winning the war (see below). The bad news is that two particular types of dullard are winning some of the battles: government censors, and politically correct censors. The former are more worrying, as well as less entertaining, than the latter. Whereas PC ineffectually seeks to protect the weak from denigration, state censors often seek to protect the powerful from the justified jeers of their subjects. Governments also tend to have more muscle to suppress the jests they dislike. The Nigerian junta hanged Ken Saro-Wiwa; sensitive American academics do not have the power to do anything remotely similar to Rush Limbaugh or Howard Stern.
In general, the less democratic the government, the less developed its leaders’ sense of humour. In North Korea, for example, any kind of satire is banned because everything is perfect in the people’s paradise, so there is nothing to mock. The only person allowed to make jokes is the Dear Leader, Kim Jong Il, who is, according to officials, "a priceless master of witty remarks”. A news release provides a taste of his wit: "To expect victory in the revolution without the leader is as good as to expect a flower to bloom without the sun." Another of his Wildean rib-ticklers: “Trust produces loyal subjects but doubt produces traitors.” In a way, perhaps that is funny.
Pulling potentates’ proboscises is perennially perilous. Zimbabwe’s former president, the Reverend Canaan Banana, grew so angry at the jollity inspired by his name that he banned all jokes about himself. One dreads to imagine what China’s rulers will do if they catch the hacker who created a computer virus that erases the hard drive of anyone who answers “No” to the question, “Do you think that Prime Minister Li Peng is an idiot?”
Political correctness is a subtler matter. In most rich countries there is a feeling that it has limited the range of permissible gags. Up to a point, this is true. Stanford University — in, note well, California, the world’s capital of unconscious self-parody — shut down a comedy website for containing too many sexist and racist jokes. The editors of “Kamui Gaiden”, a Japanese comic book for adults set in the 19th century, insisted that the gruff samurai hero refer to a blind person as “me no fujiyu na hito” (visually inconvenienced).
All around the world, jokes that might upset oppressed minorities are being told less often, and in less public places. But this is not necessarily because comedians are afraid of the PC police. The real reason for the change in jokesters’ targets, according to William Cook, a comedy writer, is that audiences' tastes have changed. Punters are bored of stale anti-immigrant gags. The most popular jokes these days tend to lampoon the strong, rather than the weak.
In today’s world, lawyers are very, very strong. The legal profession has always attracted its share of derision, but the level of hostile humour has increased noticeably since racist jokes went out of fashion. The sorts of jokes which, in less enlightened times, were directed at ethnic groups are now more commonly aimed at lawyers, particularly in America:
Certain Californian lawyers have tried to have jokes like these restricted as hate speech, and they have a point. Most lawyers — well, some — are splendid people, so it is perhaps unfair to suggest that scientists have decided to experiment on lawyers instead of rats because there are some things even a rat won’t do.
Jokes at the expense of women, notably mothers-in-law, were not so long ago a staple, but today ridiculing men is far safer:
Tell such a joke about women, and you will instantly become a pariah. This is not fair. On the other hand, men do less than half of the work in the world, own 90% of the property, and can wear the same suit every day, which is not fair either.
What to do about jokes at the expense of the stupid? Many avenues have been blocked off by sensitivity. The sorts of jokes that the English used to tell about the Irish, the Americans about the Poles, the Ibos about the Hausas and the Tajiks about the Uzbeks, are now often told about blonds (or, more usually, blondes):
This anti-blond humour may limp along for a few years more. But no doubt someone, somewhere, is already forming a group with a name like People Opposed to the Oppression of Persons with Hair of European-Aryan Descent.
Wherever you go, you meet people who think that foreigners have either no sense of humour or at best a crude one. They are wrong. Humour is universal. But language is not, and neither are frames of reference. Puns that play on Chinese pictograms and their homophones are hard to render in English. Punchlines that assume an intimate knowledge of Italian politics earn few guffaws outside Rome. The comedy that travels easily is often the crassest: from Britain, Mr Bean and Benny Hill; from America, Beavis and Butt-head. Judge a nation by its comic exports and you may conclude that the British are a bunch of dim-witted sex pests, which in fact is only half the story.
Domestic humour is subtler and, generally speaking, more revealing. A gazetteer of humour, indeed, provides quite a lot of information about the local landscape.
In Africa, there are so many truly awful governments that rambunctious satire comes easily. Corruption is a popular theme, as in this story from Kenya:
The people of Congo (fomerly Zaire) demonstrated a ghoulish wit when picking a nickname for their worthless currency. In honour of the prostate cancer that killed their kleptocratic president, Mobutu Sese Seko, high-denomination banknotes are known as “prostates”.
In South Africa, the end of apartheid has left comedians confused. Even Pieter-Dirk Uys, a comic who risked imprisonment under the old regime by appearing on stage in drag, took a year off after the 1994 elections to take stock of the new order. He is now back, doing Winnie Mandela impressions with rubber tyres hanging from his ears, and satirising wealthy whites who think black car-jackers should have their fingers chopped off. He regards his new president as too saintly to mock, however: “I’m not going to humiliate Mandela. His wife does it all the time.”
Funnier than war
In the Middle East, where the words “peace process” will reliably raise a wry laugh, the hopeless illogic of the two sides is ever a source of black humour:
Like many jokes, that one contains more truth than one would wish. The travails of the Sesame Street gang suggest that organising even light entertainment in this fraught part of the world is not easy. Producers of the beloved American children’s programme were planning to launch an Israeli version that would promote mutual understanding between young Palestinians and Jews. The idea was to have Palestinian and Jewish "muppet" puppets appear in the same show, chatting amiably using a limited vocabulary of words that sound similar in Hebrew and Arabic.
Alas, the Palestinian muppeteers did not want their muppets to live on the same street as the Jewish muppets. Americans tried to act as mediators. If Jewish and Palestinian muppets could not live on the same street, should there not at least be a park where they could play together, they suggested? The Palestinians asked: "Who owns the park, Jews or Arabs?"
Perhaps not surprisingly, East Asia offers a notably diverse menu of humour. In Japan, mildly smutty, and intensely stupid, variety shows are staples of the airwaves. Panels of contestants watch buxom women in bikinis jiggling and bopping to a perky disco beat; when the music stops, they have to guess which one is wearing a padded bra. Very funny. Chefs on cooking programmes are assisted by models wearing aprons and nothing else.
The country’s most popular comic, “Beat” Takeshi Kitano, is intelligent enough to create heart-wrenching movies such as Hana-Bi, winner of this year’s Golden Lion award at Venice. But he is also clever enough to realise that the easy money is in silly chat shows. Japan’s parent-teacher association accused him of fomenting schoolyard bullying by being vicious to his straight men. For example, he made one of them ski naked down a mountainside with only a red tengu (long-nosed goblin) mask to cover his manhood. Mr Kitano replied that it was impossible to make jokes without hitting or humiliating people.
Singaporeans have to be careful not to libel anyone important, but still manage some plucky gags.
Both Singaporeans and South Koreans like to poke fun at the jostling, materialistic side of their own cultures. One of Singapore’s most popular cartoon characters, Mr Kiasu, is so anxious to outdo the neighbours that even his dog has a pager. In Seoul, where queues are for wimps and elbows are for other people’s noses, this joke is popular:
Free to laugh
In recent years, Eastern Europe has seen a revolution in humour: along with the Cold War died jokes about queues, shortages and gerontocrats. New jokes were born, often about the vulgarity of newly rich Russians and the cultural differences between “Ossies” and “Wessies” in the unified Germany.
The British have a splendid tradition of political satire, and an equally spiffing heritage of lavatory humour. A few outstanding comedians have managed to combine the two. Winston Churchill was once at the urinals in the House of Commons when the Labour prime minister, Clement Attlee, walked in. Churchill turned his back on him. "Feeling stand-offish, today, Winston?" asked Attlee. "No," replied Churchill, "scared. Every time you see something big, you want to nationalise it." More recently, and from the opposite end of the political spectrum, "alternative" comedians such as Ben Elton have risen by satirising the Tory party and telling gruesome anecdotes about filthy public conveniences.
For Britain in the early 1990s, stand-up comedy became something akin to the new rock ’n’ roll. The number of stand-up venues mushroomed, as publicans realised that people will pay £10 a head to listen to rude jokes over a pint or six of beer, and television producers simultaneously noticed that comedy shows are cheap to make and usually prove to be popular. British television comedy is a leading transatlantic export; but the rest of the world looks to America to provide it with inoffensive sitcoms, slapstick films starring Jim Carrey, and strip cartoons about six-year-old brats or harassed office workers. More sophisticated forms of American satire tend to be harder for outsiders to understand, because not many of them know what "managed health care" is.
Fortunately for the cause of comedic globalisation, we have all heard of Bill Gates, who, when he owns the entire world in the next century, will be the butt of all jokes everywhere. This one, for example, used to be told at the expense of Henry Kissinger, but now is retargeted:
And then there is Bill Gates and the inevitable light bulb.
Don’t sue us, Mr Gates. It’s just a joke.
Source: The Economist 18 December 1997 Copyright © 1995-2001 The Economist Newspaper Group Limited
Now for something completely different: Laughter, it turns out, is serious medicine.
Researchers at the University of Maryland School of Medicine have found that laughing out loud causes the inner lining of blood vessels to relax, opening a bit more, increasing the flow of blood. "The magnitude of change we saw is similar to the benefit we might see with aerobic activity, but without the aches, pains and muscle tension associated with exercise," said Dr Michael Miller, principal investigator for the study. The bottom line is that laughing opens vessels and reduces the effects of stress - and quite possibly the risk of cardiovascular disease. Mental stress does the opposite, constricting the vessels.
It's easy to get caught up in the tension of everyday, 21st-century life. Then again, take another look, because the absurdity of that same life might be the ticket to a longer one.
Did you hear the one about ...
Source: seattlepi.nwsource.com Seattle Post-Intelligencer Wednesday 9 March 2005
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