There was once a birthday celebration of which I was in attendance. All of us present were a small group of six friends, and as we conversed and laughed and had a good time, the situation of our conversation began to change. We drifted from topic to topic, laughter after everyone’s quips becoming common, and eventually we settled into a pattern I was able to recognize as a “joke session.” Being infrequent as time was not always permitting, we relished the challenge of drumming up an anecdote or one-liner that would leave everybody in tears. Jokes ranging from long, humorous stories to mock question-answer jokes were tossed about. Every now and again a joke was told that absolutely failed to elicit laughter, in which case the audience would rib him or her good-naturedly yet mercilessly (often provoking laughter). These sessions are commonplace for us; never have we intentionally begun one, but never will we ignore the opportunity for one.
I find it hard to read Douglas’ thesis on jokes. Her anthropological view seems to destroy the very reason for telling a joke in the first place; however, her qualification of Freud’s theory on jokes does shed more light on the telling of jokes and why we as humans enjoy them so much. She has excellent points about the idea of jokes and joke-telling: that they can be spontaneous or deliberate, arising immediately in the context of a situation or as a “rite.” Yet Douglas seems to be searching for the unifying pattern of a joke and goes so far as to relate it to the parables of the Bible, indicating that they may be jokes in the context of that situation; steps in this direction, I believe, lead one away from the point and purpose of jokes. Take by example the excerpt from Millman: his writing is clearly that of a travel diary and while it is rife with interesting facts and information from his perspective on travel in the North Atlantic, these alone are not humorous. However, intermingled with his story is a tale related to him by an Icelander by the name of Gudmundur whose tale of sexual misfortune coupled with mortal peril ending in a drinking session is nothing short of side-splitting, and what’s more not even the point of introducing Gudmundur.
This is clearly the form Douglas is searching for, the very essence of a spontaneous joke. Here on a ship rocking with the waves and plaguing the passengers with seasickness is a man who tells a story of sexual conquest interrupted by a completely unexpected homosexual proposal: the juxtaposition of the control (the situation of the ship) and that which is controlled (the unhappiness of the passenger). Yet there is such a thing as “pushing the envelope,” and it can be taken too far. To suggest that a parable of Jesus is a joke out of social context simply because it fits the pattern of “confronting one accepted pattern with another” is “missing the boat” as my high school English teacher would remark.
I believe the point of a joke is to give pleasure, joy, and in some cases, laughter. There are many purposes to which jokes may be applied: to ridicule, to inspire, to make aware, to question, to open up a perspective which was not previously considered… the list is endless. I agree with Douglas that if a joke is to be analyzed and understood from a scientific point of view then the social context in which it is told and the social forms which it emulates are to be considered as the driving factors. Nevertheless one must remember that the point of a joke is to tell it. In my friends’ joke sessions when a joke fails to elicit laughter the person is “punished,” and when a joke causes fits of hysteria the teller is lauded with teary-eyed praise.
There is a danger, I believe, in taking jokes too seriously…