10 March 2006


Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts On Joking Matters, by Ted Cohen, is, alas, just some thoughts. I was kind of hoping for more analysis, less description. The book is interesting, and does have some interesting thoughts, but there's very little argument. At times I found myself doubting some of his claims, and was frustrated by his lack of interest in backing any of them up. Still though, his ideas are interesting, and he does relate a lot of highly amusing jokes.

Cohen's basic thesis is somewhat similar to his claims about metaphor; namely, that jokes create a particular kind of intimacy between teller and listener, because they rely upon shared knowledge of a certain subject and a shared response to something. This shared response is of a special kind because it can't be guaranteed - it's not like an argument, where you can persuade someone to your view. Somebody will either like a joke or they won't, and there's not much you can do about it if they don't. It might seem overly glorifying to say that jokes touch some fundamental part of your innermost being, a part that has a lot to do with your essential humanity, but I'm actually inclined to agree with him here. And there really is a kind of intimacy to telling someone a joke that makes them laugh. Laughter is a mysteriously beautiful part of a person.

I did, however, disagree with a lot of Cohen's analysis about why certain jokes were funny, and some of the conclusions he drew. The final section, on offensive jokes, was particularly dubious, in my opinion. But I don't recall exactly why, so I should probably re-read it before attacking the guy.

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