In the movie Rainman , Raymond Babbitt, an autistic savant, keeps obsessively repeating the Abbott and Costello “Who’s on first” routine. In his disturbed mental state, he doesn’t see the humor in the words. He uses the classic schtick as a kind of ritual to provide security in times of stress. His brother Charley tries to get him to grasp the humor behind the routine, but ultimately fails partly because of the inherent limitations in Raymond’s condition. The story nonetheless reminds us that humor can mean many things to many different people and be used to serve a variety of ends.

Salesmen, school children, bigots, preachers, people operating under extreme stress, stand-up comics, therapists all use humor to make themselves feel good, to make others feel good, to make a living, to make living better, more fun and less stressful. Telling stories is warm and comforting, deep and resonant in our subconscious, reaching back to earliest communication around a campfire. Jokes and stories seem to have a life of their own as they come out of nowhere, whiz from coast to coast from salesman to serviceman, as part of an invisible and unofficial network. They are a living vestige of a time when oral tradition was the only form of mass communication. Around a campfire, in religious ceremonies in holy places, in market places and public fora, genealogies, mythologies, epic poems, plays, the story of a people, were all memorized and passed on from generation to generation without the help of the written word. The Bible, as we know it now, was at various times a living story, or rather, a series of many stories living in the minds of generations upon generations of believers, who told and re-told the stories before they were finally confined to written text. Perhaps memories were keener then. Perhaps Greek citizens were right to bemoan Socrates’ ‘corrupting’ influence on young people by his espousal of the written word. They feared the loss of a mental facility for memorizing the spoken word as some more modern parents would fear pocket calculators and the resultant loss to future generations of the facility for doing sums in the mind. But somehow oral tradition has not completely vanished. We may have evolved and invented more technological means of mass communicating but somehow the phenomenon, (the group survival skill ?) of oral communication perdures. The universal opening “…did you hear the one about…?” is like an invitation to sit around a campfire to be included, informed, reassured, reaffirmed in togetherness, as we listen to familiar and new stories. Is that putting too much meaning on a simple joke? I don’t think so. All these basic sentiments and needs can be identified over and over in the living, fluid phenomenon of oral humor.

INCLUSION: Jokes are a way of confirming our togetherness, of reminding ourselves of who we are as a group, what we have in common as opposed to those ‘others.’ Survival in our pre-historic past depended on recognizing friend or foe quickly, the way servicemen are trained to identify enemy aircraft at a glance. So perhaps tribal training and refresher courses around the campfire involved a lot of stories with beginnings like, “Why do Neanderthals have big _ _?” Noting ethnic difference may no longer be a survival skill. But the propensity to do just that, lurks in our gene pool bubbling to the surface in ethnic put-downs.

There’s an attractive economy in ethnic humor. It can tighten bonds of likeness and emphasize difference at the same time. I learned this lesson at the feet of my 5th grade teacher, a nun in a Polish religious order stationed in an Italian ghetto. She asked an Italian classmate who had been held-back four times (he was 14 years old in the 5th grade), whether he minded being called a dago. Mario answered, “Hey sister, I don’t mind if it’s another dago calls me a dago. It’s when a dumb Pollak calls me a dago that I get mad.” The nun, to her credit, laughed with the rest of us…she had asked for it. ‘Mamo’ rose a notch in everyone’s estimation. Birds of a feather flock together…and stay together by remarking difference.

REASSURANCE: Still on the theme of atavistic instincts. Did you ever notice how many jokes pick on deformity, mental deficiency and old age? “What do you call a paraplegic in front of a door?…Matt.” “Did you hear about the 80-year olds who got married?… spent their honeymoon getting out of the car.” I posit that sick jokes are a throwback to eons upon eons of human existence when survival, as learned from natural predators like wolves, would depend on noticing deformity or deficiency in prey—the limping deer as an easy meal. So, while we subconsciously scan for weakness, we joke to reaffirm our own wholeness and preempt being scanned in turn. If you keep telling ‘old people’ jokes, folks won’t consider you old.

DISTANCE : It’s interesting that professionals who deal with real sickness on a first hand basis: nurses, paramedics, nursing home aids, caretakers for the mentally and physically impaired joke about their charges in a way that seems flip and uncaring to the outsider. M*A*S*H offered a window into the world of trauma surgical teams and the kind of wisecrack humor that allows them to work intensely with the right amount of professional detachment. Helicopter flight nurses who talk about a “pizza run” to describe the horrible carnage of a highway accident are putting a wall around their emotions—humor as a ten-foot pole. Caretakers of the brittle old or the emotionally or physically impaired may be observed laughing and joking about their charges. Cruel? No. Survival. In order to maintain professional detachment with continued caring, it is imperative to perceive clients from a perspective of normalcy, remark the incongruity, and go on from there. Humor is the ferry boat the workers need to ride between the world of the normal and the world of the handicapped. It keeps them from getting marooned on one shore or the other.

RUMPLESTILTSKIN: Sick jokes that seem to mushroom up after disasters can be appalling. People seem to be flailing at the laws of chance over which they have no control. In a childlike effort to dispel the fear and control the uncontrollable, gruesome jokes of alarming bad taste flash through the oral tradition network. Perhaps the story of Rumpelstiltskin lurks in our memories like a pacifier to be drawn on in times of stress. If we can name the monster of cruel fate, it won’t be able to hurt us. If we can’t control what happens to us, we can at least whistle in the dark with black humor.

INITIATION: The child in the corner who suddenly starts to chuckle at ‘adult’ humor usually raises a knowing glance between the grownups. The kid has turned a corner. For some parents this opens up opportunities for education, positive self-esteem, and shared good fun.  “Did you hear about the man who bought some condoms? The sales clerk said that will be $.99 and four cents for tax. The man said, “Tacks? Don’t you have the regular roll-on kind?” “I don’t get it” from the child, brings on a lecture. A laugh from the child gets a conspiratorial smile from the adult and implies ‘you’re getting to be an adult, you understand things, good for you.’

SOCIAL BAROMETER: The best of adult humor follows and creates public awareness around social mores, especially sexual mores. While traditional gender-based premises provide the foundation for adult humor, changing premises open up fertile grounds for new jokes and social awareness.

 Old Premise: Old men lose their sexual powers.

New Premise: Maybe not.

A 65 year old man is having his annual physical. The doctor is taking his history. “You are remarkably well preserved for a man of your age. How old was your father when he died?

“Did I say he died? He’s 86 years old and doing quite well thank you.”

“Well then, how old was your grandfather when he died?”

“Did I say he was dead? He is 108 and is getting married next week.”

“Why would a man 108 years old want to get married?”

“Did I say he wanted to get married?”

Old Premise: Young women are demure and inexperienced about sexual matters.

New Premise: Maybe not.

Then there’s the one about the young woman at the sex lecture. The professor began, “There are 29 positions for making love.”

The young woman shouted from the back, “30! “

The professor hesitated then began again, “There are 29 positions for making love with reproduction in mind. The first of these is the missionary position where the male is in the superior position and the woman is in the inferior position.”

From the back, “31!”

Old Premise: Older women are no longer interested in sex.

New Premise: Why not.

 A sweet older woman can’t find a suitable pet in a pet shop until she notices a frog who gives her a big foolish grin. She doesn’t like frogs but can’t help being attracted to this frog. On the drive home, she stops for a light and can’t resist a peek in the box. Again, she gets an engaging grin and on impulse kisses the frog. He turns into a studly prince. Do you know what she turned into?…the motel across the street.

POLITICAL BAROMETER: There are many generic political jokes waiting for rebirth in a new political context.  

President Bush was distraught when his name was found written in urine in the snow in front of the White House. The FBI was called in.

“Mr. President we have good news and bad news. The good news is that we found the culprit. The urine belonged to Dan Quayle. The bad news is, it was your wife’s handwriting.”

Interestingly enough, this story was the title of a collection of American folk stories, Pissing in the Snow, dating back to the revolutionary period. The story was more neutral in the original format where a hill farmer catches his neighbor in town and says, “I don’t want your son courting my daughter anymore…” and ends with “it was her handwriting.”

Or there was the young man hitch hiking in Nebraska who got picked up just outside Omaha.

“What ‘re yer politics young man?” the driver inquired as soon he got in the car.

“I’m a Democrat,” he proudly asserted.

Two minutes later he was back on the road.

A red Corvette pulled over. He hopped in. The attractive woman driver promptly asked “Politics?”

“Republican,” responded the young man.

A few minutes later he started to squirm as he stared at the shapely legs and high hem line of the driver.

“Problem fella?” she asked.

“Yeah I can’t figure it out. I’ve only been a Republican for 10 minutes and already I feel like screwing someone.”

Pick your party, campaign, politician or political issue and any number of jokes may be used to state your case, parody the opposition and ridicule their personalities.

SENSE OF PROPORTION: A true sense of humor, as opposed to a penchant for telling humorous stories, is based on a sense of proportion.

 “For a very little consideration will show us clearly that the sense of humor is always born of a sense of proportion, both in the inner world and in the outer.”1

It takes a certain sense of our relative place in the grand scheme of things to have a sense of humor. Some people call this awareness humility, while others call it honesty. When we take ourselves too seriously, when our vanity is tweaked, when our sense of self-importance gets overblown, we cut ourselves off from the healing, integrating, centering powers of humor. A person busy about making himself important and indispensable, or controlling and changing others, can’t afford to see what he is really doing. Can’t allow himself to laugh at himself. And if you can’t laugh at yourself, you really can’t join in the great cosmic joke of our relative insignificance. A Larson FAR SIDE cartoon illustrates the awareness, so difficult to maintain, of our relative weight in the scale of the universe: a flea stands in a vast plain from which curved spikes grow at large intervals – title- FLEASCAPE.

“We all laugh at the foibles of those around us, but those with a sense of humor do not laugh at a person; there is simply a feeling of delight in the ridiculous wherever it is manifest and such laughter does not condemn the other or oneself but simply enjoys the sudden recognition of the loss of proportion in all our human conflicts and contradictions. It is a healing, not a destructive thing — a delight in life, in its comedies and tragedies, its seriousness and absurdities…” 2

GROUP THERAPY: Sometimes humor can be used to remind members of a group about standards and mores. For example, in a family context, humor may be used to call siblings back to a sense of proportion. A priest friend claimed that his sister was an essential part of his spiritual life. Every time he tried to act pious or priestly at home, she would teach him humility by telling embarrassing childhood stories about him to whatever guest were present.

 In an interesting article on American Indian humor Joseph Bruhac describes an Iroquois Indian strike-pole dance in which tribal members took turns telling jokes and satirizing each other.

“Humor can be used to remind people…who because of their achievements might be feeling a little too proud or important…that they are no more important than anyone else in the circle of life. Teasing someone who gets a little too “tall” may help them shrink back to the right height.”3

In a context where people are not used to directly confronting and discussing feelings and attitudes, humor can be an important tool for maintaining social mores without bruising individual egos.

            King of the Mountain: Women can’t tell jokes. Not in mixed company. Not if they don’t want to be looked at as if they were challenging the men to arm wrestling contests. Better she should stay in the admiring audience that circles the two or three men one-upping one another’s stories. Remembering jokes, telling them well, non-stop, is a highly competitive game—a verbal form of playing ‘king of the mountain.’

            Once I had the occasion to be at a conference that involved a high predominance of males who, we discovered over beer the first night, were all self-styled raconteurs. For three straight nights we tried to one-up each other with jokes. But everyone knew all the jokes. Like the story about the prisoners who put numbers on all the jokes to save time…but that’s another story.4 The challenge was to find a joke that no one had heard. On the third night, it was down to me and a balding Canadian for the championship. I won going away when I came up with a bald joke that neither he nor anyone else had heard before.5           

            If a woman were part of that contest, the group dynamics would have shifted in the way they must do when a woman plays goalie for a hockey team or is a kicker for a football team. She could be respected for her competence…if she was good. But all the males would be on edge adjusting role expectations while trying to be politically correct.

            PLAYFUL:  Why is a baby’s laughter so compelling? Playing “I’m going to get you” or “peek-a-boo” with a baby can be as engaging for the adult as for the child. ‘Peek-a-boo,’ for the child, dramatizes the separation anxiety/relief of adults leaving and then coming back—a paradigm of humor as tension built up and released. Fun for all. Slapstick, cartoons, pratfalls, pranks and practical jokes all follow the same simple story line.

But somehow about age six the basis for humor begins to shift from the release of tension to incongruity between the way things are and the way they ought to be. Children become fascinated by riddles and puns. Words, they have discovered, are not always what they seem. Much of what constitutes adult humor, based on satire and irony, escapes children because they have such a limited base of knowledge and experience. But once they find that words can mean more than one thing their parents face a daily barrage of “knock-knock” and “what do you get when you cross a dog with a chicken?” type jokes (pooched eggs, by the way). Some of us adults arrest at the childish level of puns. Others only occasionally indulge a nostalgic visit to the ‘old neighborhood’ of word play and double entendre. But any of us can be brought up short by a baby’s chortle and find ourselves making the most contorted faces and ridiculous sounds to keep the laughter coming.

PROPHETIC: Moshe Waldoks in an analysis of Jewish humor, posits that great humorists work in the prophetic tradition of calling to truth. Prophets, at their best are not so much soothsayers as conscience. They challenged people to look at hypocrisy and self-delusion and see it for what it is. But interestingly enough, Waldoks sees the best of modern humorists calling us to look at the truth of our lives, our pretensions, delusions, see them for what they are and begin to change by laughing at ourselves.

“…the great humorists are those who really ask if we are going to accept our reality the way it is, or if we are willing to dig a little bit and see what is going on—the flip-side of reality. This flip-side of reality is where a lot of humor is, and a lot of warmth and a lot of heart, which is often hidden away because we don’t want to rock the boat. The humorist is supposed to rock the boat the way the prophet of old was supposed to rock the boat.”6

An important type or style of Jewish humor is based on commenting. A badhan would be engaged at a wedding to comment on the goings-on. Something of that tradition carries on in Jewish humorists as diverse as Sam Levenson, Lenny Bruce and Don Rickles. Their comments on life around them are incisive, funny and perhaps hold a grain of truth for all of us.

 Humor can take many forms: canned jokes, stand-up comic routines, one-liners by a salesman, riddles and puns from a child, improvised take-offs, impersonations, political cartoons, comic strips, limericks, caricature. Humor can be used to start speeches, compete for attention with the opposite sex, dominate in a “can you top this one?” story telling session. Humor helps in therapy. There are claims that laughing cured cancer. Humor helps let off steam in stressful situations. Humor lets us say sharp things indirectly. New Yorker cartoon humor is self-deprecating: when it isn’t laughing at someone else’s foibles it is bursting our own inflated pretensions. Humor is truly seeing ourselves from the outside and being able to laugh at our own seriousness. A sense of humor is what most dating sites include in an ideal mate. Probably the indefinable “sense of humor” runs more to an ability to laugh at oneself than to tell jokes about others. Humor sells. Or at least many salesmen think so. What’s for sure is, a good salesman knows how to read his client and would know the appropriate joke to tell them. Joke tellers may be class clowns in search of yet another captive audience. They learned early that jokes bring strokes. Jokes can be good and bad. Jokes can support bigotry and prejudice, be cruel and insensitive, be destructive of public consciousness about a group or race. Humor can enlighten, teach, reassure and generally act as leaven in the making of our daily bread. Humor can say many things, sometimes contradictory things, at the same time. Good humor, like good art can have many layers of meaning and speak across the laws of logic. And sometimes a joke is funny….just because. It is the sharing of this kind of joke that establishes and renews that astonishing phenomenon of oral tradition that allows humor to live in the minds and laughter of those who know how to recognize, enjoy and pass on, a good joke.


1 Helen M. Luke, “The Laughter at the Heart of Things”, Parabola, Vol XII, Number 4, 1987,p.8.

2 Helen M. Luke, p.10.

3 Joseph Bruchac, “Striking the Pole: American Indian Humor”, Parabola, Vol XII, Number 4, 1987 p.26.

4 A woman reporter on assignment to a prison was observing the inmates in the yard on a break. A bunch of them kept shouting out numbers and laughing. “39!” (laughter) “45!”(laughter). “What are they doing?” she asked the warden. “Oh, they’re telling jokes. You see, over the years the jokes got so familiar, the inmates just decided to number them.” One man shouted out “56!”. No one laughed. “Why aren’t they laughing?” asked the reporter. “He never could tell a joke.” Just then someone yelled,”193!” and the the yard broke up in hysterical laughter. “What’s so funny about that one?” “Oh, it’s the first time they heard it.”

5 A minister allowed his pet parrot on the pulpit. Every Sunday the bird would help direct seating by announcing in a loud voice,”Men on the right, women on the left, children up front!” One day the reverend caught the parrot making whoopee in the hen house. “This is against the laws of God and nature. If I catch you again, I’ll pull out your pin feathers and banish you from my pulpit.”

The parrot got caught and found himself in the rafters of the church on Sunday morning. He just couldn’t help himself from directing traffic,”Men on the right, women on the left, children up front!” Just then two bald men walked in. The parrot squawked, “Men on the right, women on the left, children up front, and you chicken fuckers up here in the rafters with me.”

6 Speed Vogel,Moshe Waldoks, “Meditations on a Joyful Year”,Parabola, Volume XII, Number 4, 1987,pp58-59.

One thought on “Good Humor Is No Joke

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