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Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters, by Ted Cohen; xi & 99 pp. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999, $15.00.
Ted Cohen's Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters has all of the qualities of a very good joke. It is short, clear, immediately accessible; it has lines that reverberate pleasantly in memory long after you put it down; and you want to share it with others. It is not only a profound meditation on the nature of jokes--or, as Cohen would say, of some jokes--but also an anthology of some of the best jokes I've ever heard. Unlike most philosophical treatises, it does not stint on examples; it is full of them. Even more remarkably, the examples uniformly advance the argument, an argument that itself is original--indeed to my knowledge unprecedented in the annals of the philosophy of humor.
Cohen begins his treatise by roughly characterizing his domain of interest. He does not intend to advance a theory of all humor, but only of jokes, which are, broadly speaking, stories or verbal formulas (such as "Why did the moron do x?") meant to make us laugh (p. 1). Of course, story jokes and formula jokes can be combined in various ways. Yet Cohen does not attempt to construct a theory of all jokes, but only of some jokes. He does not intend to present necessary and sufficient conditions for what counts as a joke--he suspects it can't be done--but rather, it seems, he is only committed to offering general observations [End Page 435] about certain joke-prototypes, perhaps prototypes of the best jokes. Furthermore, Cohen is finally less concerned with the structural analysis of jokes and more with their significance--their importance and what they mean to and about those who tell them.
One rare generalization that Cohen seems prepared to make about all jokes is that they are conditional (p. 12). By "conditional," Cohen means that in order to succeed, there is something on condition of which the joke depends (p. 12). That is, jokes can only work with certain audiences, audiences who must supply something--fulfill certain conditions--in order to get the joke or to be amused by it. At the very least, the audience will have to understand the language of the joke as well as generally much more--the audience will have to fill-in the joke by mobilizing the beliefs, feelings, and knowledge, including knowledge of the conventions of joking, presupposed by the joke--if the joke transaction is to promote mirth.
For example, consider this joke:
Brenda O'Malley is home preparing dinner when Tim Finnegan arrives saying, "I've something to tell ya."
Brenda replies: "Sure, come in Tim, but where's me husband Shamus?"
"Well, that's what I'm here to tell ya darlin': there's been a terrible accident down at the Guinness brewery. Shamus fell inta one of the vats and drowned himself."
"How did it happen? Did he suffer, Tim? Did he at least go quickly?"
"Well no, Brenda darlin'. The fact is, he had to get out of the vat three times ta pee."
This joke is conditional. It presupposes that the audience have certain beliefs about Irish drinking habits, or, at least, that they know that such beliefs are abroad, and that they know that there is a genre of jokes, called Irish jokes, in which it is presumed that the Irish have an inordinate love of alcohol. They must also know what Guinness is, and they must also share certain feelings about the ludricrousness of Shamus's self-destructive behavior, and they must appreciate, even savor, how incongruous it is to describe the event as an accident. Indeed, the audience must also share a certain lack of feeling with the teller of the tale. They must be willing to join him in bracketing any moral concern for Shamus's untimely death and, instead, focus only on its absurdity. Something like all or most...