Manny's Reviews > The Naked Jape: Uncovering the Hidden World of Jokes

The Naked Jape by Jimmy Carr
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Jul 24, 12

bookshelves: linguistics-and-philosophy, science, too-sexy-for-maiden-aunts, well-i-think-its-funny
Read from October 14 to 17, 2010

This is a fun book! A professional comic and his friend, who seems to be some kind of academic type, collaborate to write a treatise on the nature of humour. They've done a good job, and there is at least one joke on every page - a really varied assortment too, ranging from traditional staples (What's brown and sticky?) to sophisticated meta-jokes. Some of the ones I liked most are in my updates.

You can read it for the jokes alone, but I thought the discussion was at least as worthwhile. They look at the subject from many different angles, and go through a bunch of theories about how humour works. One thing they notice is that the arguments any given person presents in favour of a theory seem to say more about them than they do about the theory itself. Their star example is the sexually obsessed Professor Legman (his real name), whose Freudian theory of jokes was based on the hypothesis that they are always about sex. Evidently, sex often features in jokes, but to say they're always about sex does seem to take it way too far. It's a good warning though.

Here are some more of the theories they describe. Perhaps the most popular one comes from that well-known prankster, Immanuel Kant. Kant thought that the essence of the joke is incongruity: you see things one way, then you suddenly flip over to seeing them a different way. Carr and Greaves agree with Kant that this is important, but they point out that incongruity isn't enough on its own: in particular, timing is essential too. All the same, they think that jokes usually involve incongruity in some form.

Another mainstream theory, going back at least as far as Aristotle, is that jokes are about demonstrating superiority. You laugh at people to show that you're better or smarter or something like that. Certainly, Polish jokes and blonde jokes seem to fit the bill - not to mention what's arguably the greatest joke of all time, slipping on a banana-skin and falling flat on your ass. Again, though, it's easy to find jokes where no one is obviously being insulted or degraded.

Yet another theory: jokes are about exercising power. You gain power over people by making them laugh. Servile employees stereotypically laugh at their boss's jokes (they quote studies demonstrating that this really happens). Also, as Woody Allen points out, laughter is a weapon of seduction, so jokes give you sexual power too. Interestingly, they point out that it's mostly in the male-to-female direction. For some reason, men want to make women laugh, but aren't generally as keen on having women make them laugh. One wonders why not.

They look at it from other perspectives as well. Some animals may have a sense of humour: perhaps Aristotle was wrong when he said that man is the animal that laughs. They talk about the cultural roots of humour, in legends of trickster gods (amazing how widespread they are), who are almost always aggressively male, with huge penises. Well, let's face it: even if humour isn't all about sex, penises are funny. And there's a good deal about different kinds of jokes, and about what it's like to be a standup comedian. I'm afraid I was a little disappointed to hear how heavily scripted standup is. I'd thought it was more spontaneous than it turns out to be. There's a nice chapter on the subversive element inherent in jokes.

At the end of the day, they remind us that humour is a strange and wonderful thing. We all know what it is from our own experience, but no one can explain it! It's not for nothing that Raymond Smullyan drew an analogy between humour and mysticism in Planet Without Laughter . And Wittgenstein said that humour isn't a feeling, but a way of looking at the world. As usual for Wittgenstein, a simple but at the same time very deep observation.

Well, as I said, it's fun. Check it out for yourself - it's a quick read! And if you're still wondering what's brown and sticky, the answer is a stick.
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So here's a theory that attempts to tie together several of the observations made in this book. As the authors say, humour must be useful in some way, but how? I wonder if it could be part of the mechanism that forces people to adapt to the societal norms around them. If you see someone who's not quite fitting the accepted social pattern, they seem incongruous. Maybe they speak in an odd way, or they are unaware of some of the complex social norms that make up the fabric of society. That incongruity is funny, so we laugh at them. But being laughed at doesn't feel nice. The people who are behaving oddly experience a pressure to conform, and that pressure is created by other people's sense of humour.

It sounds rather horrible, but if we didn't experience pressure to imitate other people's behaviour with great exactness then society wouldn't be possible. In particular, language wouldn't be possible. Everyone these days agrees that language isn't taught in the school-room; it's acquired from the people around you. And, from the abstract point of view, what I like about my hypothesis is that it combines the "incongruity" and "superiority" theories, and possibly also the "power" theory. Once you have enough power to make the people around laugh at the things that you consider funny, you can exert pressure on other people due to their fear of ridicule.

What do you think? Note that if you start laughing hysterically and pointing your finger at my absurd review, I'll be less inclined to argue for it. If you mock it offensively enough, I may even withdraw it. But if you instead make fun of the weird, dumb people who don't like it, I'll start thinking I may have stumbled on something good.
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I wrote to Matthew Hurley, one of the authors of Inside Jokes , to ask him what he thought of my theory. Apparently it was suggested by the French philosopher Henri Bergson in 1911. Damn. As usual, nothing new under the sun.
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Reading Progress

10/14/2010 page 18
5.0% "Researcher Roger Fouts claimed that one of his subjects, a chimpanzee named Washoe, who had learned sign-language, once urinated down his neck while riding on his shoulders then made the sign for 'funny'." 4 comments
10/14/2010 page 75
22.0% "Q: What do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in common? A: Same middle name." 1 comment
10/15/2010 page 88
26.0% "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die - Mel Brooks"
10/15/2010 page 113
34.0% "People laughed when I said I was going to be a comedian, but they're not laughing now."
10/16/2010 page 180
54.0% ""Feminists say a woman's work is never done. But, you know, if they just got themselves organised properly... [to female member of audience] Madam, you seem unhappy. Be reassured that this is postmodern, ironic misogyny. So don't worry your pretty little head about it... love.""
10/16/2010 page 205
61.0% "Anyone here been caught shoplifting in the Middle East? Anyone? Let's have a show of hands."
10/16/2010 page 235
70.0% "This guy's sitting in a bar when someone shouts "All lawyers are assholes!" The guy jumps to his feet and says "I resent that!" "Why, are you a lawyer?" "No, I'm an asshole!"" 1 comment
10/16/2010 page 265
79.0% "When I was a boy, I used to pray each night that I'd get a bicycle. But then I realised that God doesn't work that way, so I stole one and prayed that He would forgive me."

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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notgettingenough if it is so that men want to make women laugh but not vice versa, isn't that answered in the same paragraph? That it is about the exercise of power?


notgettingenough PS it goes against that idea of the good time girl, that men particularly desire women who entertain them including making them laugh.


message 3: by Manny (last edited Oct 16, 2010 11:24PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Manny notgettingenough wrote: "if it is so that men want to make women laugh but not vice versa, isn't that answered in the same paragraph? That it is about the exercise of power?"

That's clearly one possible answer. But they also say that the stereotype of women not being able to remember punchlines does have some basis in fact - even though there are plenty of exceptions, jokes are statistically still a masculine preserve.

A piece of advice they give to women that I rather liked: you can often seduce a man just by laughing at everything he says, but remember to stop laughing when he takes off his pants.


notgettingenough Manny wrote: "notgettingenough wrote: "if it is so that men want to make women laugh but not vice versa, isn't that answered in the same paragraph? That it is about the exercise of power?"

That's clearly one po..."


What a great tip. I'll be sure to remember that. If.


Manny notgettingenough wrote: "What a great tip. I'll be sure to remember that. If."

It might be okay if he's a trickster god. Apparently, some of them have detachable penises that they keep in boxes. So if you see anything like that, you can probably take a chance and carry on laughing.


message 6: by oriana (new)

oriana I like this conversation about laughing and penises in boxes almost as much as Manny's review!


message 7: by Ian (new)

Ian [Paganus de] Graye Manny wrote: "A professional comic and his friend, who seems to be some kind of academic type,"

If it wasn't for the word "his", I would have assumed this was you and Not.

Or are you two one?

All this penis talk reminds me of the story told by Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull about his first sexual experience, which happened to be with a prostitute.

He pulled down his trousers, she laughed and then she asked, "Who do you expect to please with that?"

He answered, "Me."


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