- Jokes and Targets by Christie Davies
Christie Davies’s latest trawl through clusters of jokes hauls in this time five main species; on blondes and sex (and the French); Jewish women and men; sex between men; U.S. lawyers; and Soviet and post-Soviet jokes. The book’s cover [End Page 822] features an apple pierced by an arrow on an adult head, the butt of an unseen William Tell. It is not the most appropriate illustration of the concept of “target,” as the Swiss father was not aiming at his son. Besides, the prey of jokes is usually absent: you don’t safely tell anti-Semitic jokes face-to-face with a Jew. Early on, Davies roundly declares: “Jokes are by definition a form of humor and not of serious discourse.” This wrong idea brings into the full light of day the self- imposed limitations of so many students of humor, especially sociologists, psychologists and linguists—and others obsessed by demarcation-disputes (in England, notoriously, boiler-makers). What happened to the common phenomena of coexistence, overlap, or alternation? Like the hardened soft-scientist that he is, Davies revels in models which surround his subject with sociological stockades. What are we to make of the long catwalk he has set up in this book? He explains that he has moved on from, but not reneged on, the center/periphery theoretical framework of his earlier study, Ethnic Humor around the World (i.e., center groups mocking marginal ones either on the score of stupidity, or for not speaking the national language properly [for example, “Newfies” on the edge of Canada]). He now favors a different passe-partout: “A single thread links together neatly all the groups who are the butts of stupidity jokes” (67). [See list above]. This intellectual panacea is “mind-over-matter” content (brain/body, elite/plebs, etc.).
Davies’s principal virtue is patience, best shown in his alertness to the widespread trick of relocating jokes from one context to another, thus ensuring that they can have, in their different disguises, very long lives. Many such, however, making the rounds yet again, were never brilliant to start with, but, like the good, value-free social scientist that he is, Davies rarely comments on the badness or goodness of his joke samples. He is astute on stereotypes, which are the mainsprings of so many jokes. Stereotypes, even when unjustified to begin with, go out of date, though many hang on, because of people’s laziness, inertia or nostalgia (in this volume, the instances of dumb blondes or sex-obsessed Frenchmen fall into this category). Davies spends much time and effort on what might be called the “natural history” of joke-cycles dependent on such stereotypes. He does not, however, address the question of why such cycles arise, nor the related issues of fashion, follow-my-leader and bandwagoning. No doubt many readers of his book will be grateful to have such contextualisation spelled out for them, although, as that least mystical of men, Voltaire, concluded some time ago, a joke explained is no joke at all. He was not treating jokes as untouchable, only as complex and resistant to paraphrasing. Davies provides some relief from his socio-historical labors by glosses that frequently play on words (e.g., Greeks depicted in jokes as keen on sodomy, but who vigorously condemn gayness in Greece: “The Greeks take a very backward position indeed” ). I welcome such spasmodic playfulness that separates Davies from many another po-faced academic commentator on humor.
In the section on the French and sex, he analyses accurately Gallic proprietorial and boastful attitudes toward sex (in jokes, at least). He sees clearly that they have reinforced their own stereotype, and thus cannot be considered as victims of others’ Francophobia. Apart from the chapter on Russian jokes, Davies in each chapter rings variations on the theme that jokes cannot be serious. For example, American jokes about lawyers as sharks “have had no impact, but they are interesting and important. They are not a thermostat, but they are a thermometer” (211). In other...