Monday, May 17, 2010

Cohen, Ted. Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

In a book that includes more jokes than many on the topic, Cohen offers an accessible and readable a description and analysis of joking, with chapters entitled, "Jokes Are Conditional," "When Jokes are Assymetrical," "Problems and Occassions for Joke-Making," "Jewish Jokes and the Acceptance of Absurdity," and "Taste, Morality, and the Propriety of Joking." In his introduction, Cohen limits his object of study to two specific joke forms: short story jokes and formula jokes. Though in a less specific manner, he reinforces Douglas's point that jokes work because their audience brings certain awareness or assumptions to the joke (3). Unlike some others, Cohen begins by asserting his belief that no comprehensive theory of jokes is possible (10). He does suggest understanding jokes as a form of "performance" (11), a position which his text, rife as it is with jokes, reinforces. In this, he offers perhaps the most explicit linkage between performativity and humour studies.

His last chapter, "Taste, Morality, and the Propriety of Joking" offers an explicit consideration of black humour and dark jokes. He asks,

Do I think we should joke about absurdities? Should we be laughing at the fact of death? Death is a bleak topic. Jokes about death can be bleak. But apart from all that bleakness, joke-telling about death has a special dark side, which it shares with much joke-telling.

Though this statement is provocative, Cohen does not go on to suggest what this "special dark side" of jokes around death might consist of. However, he goes on to offer a discussion around contentious issue of morality and ethnic or other jokes often considered objectionable. At the beginning of this chapter, Cohen posits a line determining when a joke is "out of place," at the question of avoidance. He suggests a joke is objectionable when it is a mechanism used to avoid, rather than address a topic head on (69). At the same time, Cohen goes on to suggest that ethnic jokes are not necessarily objectionable because they "purvey stereotypes" (78). All jokes, he argues, portray fictions and falsehoods. With ethnic jokes, Cohen acknowledges there may be something "especially disagreeable or obnoxious in this particular idea's being believed" (79). However, he stops short of condemning jokes that take African Americans, for instance, as their butts because he believes making moral declarations on jokes is an impossible task. In trying to imagine the moral response of an "ideal observer"—a figure often used in analytical moral theory—to ethnically-charged jokes, Cohen argues that one cannot definitively say whether such a creature would object or welcome such jokes (81). So far, he goes on to argue, it cannot be shown that such jokes produce genuine harm to someone (81). Thus, rather than arguments over whether jokes are good or bad, funny or unfunny, Cohen argues that analysts should be interested in the fact that even objectionable jokes can be funny and wonder why this might be so (84).

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