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Summarizing this theory, then: all jokes involve a saving in inhibition.Tenden-
tious jokes lift inhibitions against sexual and aggressive content. Innocent jokes
and the jokework in general oppose the inhibitions of critical reason and allow
pleasure in nonsense and the manifestation of infantile and unconscious modes of
thought. What protects the tendentious joke from criticism is the jokework,
which, like the dreamwork, beguiles the psychic censor.What protects the inno-
cent joke and the jokework, in all its operations, from criticism is the appearance
of sense or meaning in the joke.
Clearly, Freud™s theory of jokes is intimately connected to his general theory
of psychoanalysis. Consequently, it may be challenged wherever it presupposes
psychoanalytic premises of dubious merit. For example, if one finds the hydraulic
model of psychic energies unpalatable (as I do), then the very foundation of the
theory of jokes is questionable. Likewise, if one is methodologically distrustful of
homuncular censorship, the theory is apt to appear unpersuasive. However, for the
purposes of this essay, I think that Freud™s theory of jokes can be rejected without
embarking on the awesome task of contesting psychoanalytic theory as a whole.
That is, we can eliminate Freud™s theory of jokes as a viable rival and, thereby, pave
the way for the formulation of an alternative theory without confronting the
entire psychoanalytic enterprise.
For there is a genuine question about whether Freud™s theory of jokes is
coherent, a question that can be framed independently of the relation of the
ON JOKES 321

account of jokes to the rest of the psychoanalytic architectonic.To zero in on this
potential incoherence, recall: (1) there are innocent jokes (the operation of the
jokework pure and simple); what protects them from censorship is their sense; this
implies that there is an inhibition against the jokework that needs lifting; (2) there
are tendentious jokes; what protects them from censorship is the jokework (the
stuff of innocent jokes).
But, given this, we want to know why the tendentious joke does not auto-
destruct. For the meaning or sense that the tendentious joke supplies to lift the
inhibitions against the jokework involves the articulation of meanings that are
prohibited or forbidden. How can prohibited meanings protect the jokework?
Why doesn™t the specific sense available through the tendentious purpose of the
joke cancel the operation of the jokework?
Moreover, if the jokework cannot be protected by tendentious sense, then the
jokework cannot, in turn, serve to neutralize inhibitions against the tendentious
purposes of the joke.That is, if the jokework itself is a potential target of inhibi-
tion and the tendentious sense of the joke is ill suited to deflect censorship, then
how can the jokework, in sexual and aggressive jokes, begin to function in the ser-
vice of lifting any inhibitions?
One might attempt to remove this functional incoherence in the system by
saying that the jokework (and, therefore, innocent jokes) do not require protection
“ that they are not inhibited. But this yields the concession that not all jokes “
specifically innocent jokes “ involve an economy of inhibition. And, this conces-
sion, of course, would spell the defeat of Freud™s general characterization of jokes.
Admittedly, there may be other ways to attempt to negotiate the aforesaid func-
tional incoherence; but I suspect that they will be somewhat ad hoc. So one rather
damning point about Freud™s theory of jokes is that it is either functionally inco-
herent with regard to its account of tendentious jokes, or its generalizations about
economizing inhibition are false, or it is probably headed toward ad hocery.
Furthermore, the theory of jokes is too inclusive. One might anticipate that
given Freud™s analogy between the jokework and the dreamwork that the problem
here would be that dreams, especially dreams with sexual or aggressive purposes,
will turn out to be jokes. However, Freud is careful to distinguish dreams and
jokes along other dimensions, particularly with reference to the publicity of jokes
and the privacy of dreams. But I think that Freud still has problems of overinclu-
siveness on other fronts.
Given Freud™s theory of symbolism and his views about art, he would appear
committed to agreeing that artworks deploy the symbolic structures of the dream-
work and that artworks also may traffic in sexual and aggressive meanings. Perhaps
the winged lions of ancient Assyria “ a condensation with aggressive purposes “
would be a case in point. Why wouldn™t these count as tendentious jokes on
Freud™s view?9 Obviously, they are not jokes in our ordinary sense, for jokes are
identified in common speech by means of certain discursive structures (to be
explored below). But Freud™s theory of jokes is so divorced from structural differ-
entiae “ preferring the somewhat dubious idiom of psychic energies and inhibi-
322 ALTERNATIVE TOPICS

tions, and a theory of lawlike relations between certain types of symbolism and
psychic states “ that it is not surprising that Freud™s theory will violate pretheoret-
ical intuitions that are grounded in ordinary language.10
Freud™s theory also seems to me to suffer from being too exclusive.And, again,
the problem is traceable to the fact that Freud tries to map the field of comedy not
with respect to the structural features of comedic genres but by putative differ-
ences in psychic energies. Jokes are distinguished from the comic and the humor-
ous as economies of inhibition are distinguished from economies of thought and
emotion. But, structurally speaking, much of the material that Freud slots as comic
or as humorous could be rearticulated in what we ordinarily take to be jokes.
For example, Freud™s category of the comic, in opposition to his category of
the joke, involves a saving in thought when we compare the way a naïf or a comic
but does something with the more efficient way in which we might do the same
thing.Accepting Freud™s account, without questioning whether the talk of psychic
savings makes real sense with respect to the putative mental processing, it would
appear that many “moron” riddles “ Why did the moron stay up all night? He was
studying for his blood test11 “ would be comic (in Freud™s sense), but, pretheoret-
ically, I believe that we think they should count straightforwardly as jokes. For
whether or not something is a joke is a matter of its discursive structure, not a
matter of the kind of psychic energy it saves (if, indeed, there is any psychic
energy, salvageable or otherwise).12

A N A LT E R N AT I V E AC C O U N T O F T H E N AT U R E O F J O K E S

Freud™s theory of jokes is perhaps the most comprehensive and authoritative in
our tradition. However, as we have seen, it is problematic in a number of respects
“ not only in some of its more controversial psychoanalytic commitments, but
also in terms of its potential functional incoherence at crucial junctures and its
failure to track what we ordinarily think of as jokes. As indicated previously, the
latter failure appears due to its attempted isolation of jokes in terms of inhibition
rather than in respect to what is structurally distinctive about jokes as a comedic
genre.Thus, one place to initiate an alternative theory of jokes is to try to pinpoint
the underlying structural principles that are operative in the composition of jokes.
Jokes are structures of verbal discourse “ generally riddles or narratives “ end-
ing in punch lines. In contrast to informal verbal humor “ such as bantering, riff-
ing, or associative punning “ a joke is an integral unit of discourse with a marked
beginning and an end. If it is a riddle, it begins with a question and ends with a
punch line; if it is a narrative, it has a beginning, which establishes characters and
context, and it proceeds to a delimited complication, and then it culminates, again
in the form of a punch line. In order to analyze the joke genre, I propose to con-
sider it in the way that Aristotle considered the genre of tragedy “ as a structure
predicated on bringing about a certain effect in audiences. (And, perhaps needless
to say, the effect that I have in mind is not that of lifting psychoanalytically con-
strued inhibitions.)
ON JOKES 323

The feature that distinguishes a joke from other riddles and narratives is a
punch line. Where tragedies conclude with that state that modern literary theo-
rists call closure, the last part of a joke is a punch line. Closure in tragedies is
secured when all the questions that have been put in motion by the plot have
been answered “ when, for example, we know whether Hamlet will avenge his
father and what will become of our cast of characters. But, ideally, a punch line is
not simply a matter of neatly answering the question posed by a riddle nor of
drawing all the story lines of a narrative to a summation. Rather, the punch line
concludes the joke with an unexpected puzzle whose solution is left to the lis-
tener to resolve.That is, the end point of telling a joke “ the punch line “ leaves
the listener with one last question which the listener must answer, instead of con-
cluding by answering all the listener™s questions.
Question:“What do you get when you cross a chicken with a hawk?”Answer:
“A Quail.” At first the answer seems to be mysterious, until one realizes that it
should be spelt with a “˜y,” that it refers to a vice-president, and that the “chicken”
and “hawk” in the question are meant to be taken metaphorically. In order to “get
the joke,” the listener must interpret the punch line. In fact, the point of the punch
line is to elicit an interpretation from the listener. Indeed, this joke is designed to
elicit pretty much the interpretation that I have offered.
Or, for an example of a narrative joke, consider this story:“A young priest runs
into his abbott™s office shouting ˜Come quickly, Jesus Christ is in the chapel.™The
abbott and novice hurry into the church and see Christ kneeling at the altar.The
young man asks ˜What should we do?,™ to which the wise old abbott replies, whis-
pering,˜Look busy.™”13
Initially, the abbott™s remark seems puzzling and inappropriate; one would
expect the two holy men to walk forward and to fall on their knees in adora-
tion of their Lord and Savior. But very quickly one realizes that the abbott does
not view Christ as his Savior, but rather as his boss, indeed a boss very much
like a stereotypical earthly boss who is always on the lookout for shirkers. Get-
ting the point of the joke, again, depends on interpreting the confounding
punch line.
What the listener must do at the end of a joke is to provide an interpretation,
that is, make sense of the last line of the text in light of the salient elements of the
preceding narrative or riddle. This may involve reconstruing or reconstructing
earlier information, which initially seemed irrelevant, as now salient under the
pressure of coming up with an interpretation. For example, in the joke about the
two priests, the narrative “field” is reorganized in such a way that it becomes very
significant that the abbott is “old” and “wise” (cagey) and that he is “whispering”
(a signal of furtiveness), given our interpretation that he believes the boss (rather
than the Savior) has arrived on the scene for a surprise inspection.14
The punch line of a joke requires an interpretation because, in Annette
Barnes™s sense,15 its point is not obvious, or not immediately obvious to the lis-
tener.The punch line comes as a surprise, or, at least, it is supposed to come as a
surprise in the well-made joke. It is perhaps this moment in a joke that Kant had
324 ALTERNATIVE TOPICS

in mind when he wrote that “Laughter is an affection arising from a strained
expectation being suddenly reduced to nothing.”16
However, if this is what Kant had in mind, he has only partially described the
interaction, while also misplacing the point where the laughter arises. For after an
initial, however brief, interlude of blank puzzlement (Kant™s “nothing”), an inter-
pretation dawns on the listener, enabling her to reframe the preceding riddle or
narrative in such a way that the punch line can be connected to the rest of the
joke. It is at this point that there is laughter “ when there is laughter, rather than a
smile or a mere feeling of cheerfulness. Nor is our mind blank at this juncture. It
has mental content, namely, the relevant interpretation.17
Of course, if the listener cannot produce an interpretation, the net result of the
joke will be bewilderment. This may transpire either because of some problem
with the listener “ perhaps he lacks access to the allusions upon which the joke
depends (e.g., in our Quayle joke, he might not know that a “hawk” can mean a
militarist); or because of some problem with the joke “ for example, there really is
no compelling interpretation available. Jokes may also fail if they are too obvious,
especially if the listener can anticipate the punch line and its attending interpreta-
tion.This is one reason that what is called comic timing is important to jokes; if
the punch line is likely to be obvious, the teller must get through the joke “ often
using speed to downplay or obscure salient details “ before the listener is likely to
guess it.18 (Moreover, the preceding account of the ways in which jokes can go
wrong should provide indirect evidence for the puzzlement/interpretation model
that I am advocating.)
Ideally, a joke must be filled-in or completed by an audience. It is intentionally
designed to provoke an interpretation “ “to be gotten.”This, of course, does not
happen in a vacuum; jokes are surrounded by conventions.And, once alerted “ by
formulas like “Did you hear the one about¦” or by changes in the speaker™s tone
of voice “ the audience knows that it is about to hear a joke, which means that its
aim is to produce an interpretation, or, more colloquially, “to get it.” That is, the
aims of the teller and the listener are coordinated; both aim at converging on the
production of an interpretation. Indeed, the interpretation that the joke is con-
trived to produce is generally quite determinate, or, at least, falls into a very deter-
minate range of interpretations. For example, the interpretation I offered of the
priest joke is the interpretation of the joke, give or take a wrinkle.
Of course, even with a well-made joke there is no necessity that the listener
enjoy it. Along with the possible failures noted above, the listener may refuse to
accept the “social contract” that has been signaled by conventions like changes in
voice. That is, the listener may refuse the invitation to interpret and thereby
stonewall the joke. This is a technique employed by school teachers “ I seem to
recall “ in order to chasten unruly students.
A joke, on my view, is a two-stage structure, involving a puzzle and its solu-
tion.19 One advantage of the two-stage model is that it can dissolve the apparent
debate between what are called surprise theorists (Hobbes, Hartley, Gerard, Kant)
“ who maintain that laughter is a function of suddenness or unexpectedness “ and
ON JOKES 325

configurational theorists (Quintilian, Hegel, Maier) “ who see humor as a func-
tion of things “falling into place.”20 On the two-stage account, each camp has
identified an essential ingredient of the joke: sudden puzzlement, on the one
hand, versus a reconfiguring interpretation, on the other.The mistake each camp
makes is to regard its ingredient as the (one and only) essential feature.The two-
stage model incorporates both of their insights into a more encompassing theory.
Another way to make this point might be to say that the two-stage model appre-
ciates that a joke is a temporal structure, a feature that many previous theories fail
to take into account.
So far this approach to jokes may seem very apparent. However, it does already
indicate a striking difference between jokes and what many might be tempted to
think of as their visual correlates “ sight gags. For sight gags, typically, have noth-
ing that corresponds to punch lines and, therefore, they do not call for interpreta-
tions to be produced by their audiences. A comic, say Buster Keaton (in the film
The General) sitting on the connecting rod of the wheel of a locomotive, is so for-
lorn a rejected lover that he fails to notice that the train has started up. Our laugh-
ter rises as we await his moment of recognition and it erupts when we see that he
realizes his plight. Similarly, when a comic heads unawares toward the proverbial
banana peel, our levity builds as his fall becomes inevitable.Though the characters
in gags like these may be puzzled by the dislocation of their expectations, the
audience is not puzzled, no matter how amused it may be.We anticipate the prat-
fall; there is nothing surprising about it for us. The character may be perplexed,
but we are not, and so there is no need for us to interpret anything.What has hap-
pened is obvious and predicted.21
If the punch line/interpretation structure “ what we can call the cognitive
address of jokes “ serves generally to differentiate jokes from sight gags, more per-
haps needs to be said about why it differentiates them from noncomic riddles and
ordinary narratives, not to mention puzzles of the sort Martin Gardener concocts
or difficult mathematical problems. In order to draw these distinctions, it is impor-
tant to take note of the kinds of interpretations that jokes are designed to elicit
from audiences.
Broadly speaking, joke discourse falls into the category of fantasy discourse. In
telling a joke-narrative or posing a joke-riddle, one is not constrained to abide by
the rules of everyday, serious discourse.We need not avoid equivocation, category
errors, inconsistency, contradiction, irrelevance, paradox, or any other sort of inco-
herence with our standing body of knowledge, whether physical or behavioral,
moral or prudential, and so on. Likewise, neither the punch line nor the ensuing
interpretation need make sense in terms of consistency, noncontradiction, or
compossibility with our standing body of knowledge. In fact, it is the mark of a
joke interpretation that it will generally require the attribution of an error “ often
of the sort itemized in various ways by incongruity theorists of humor “ either to
a character in a joke or to the implied teller of the joke, or it will require the
assumption of such an error by the listener, or it will involve some combination
thereof “ in order for the interpretation to “work.”
326 ALTERNATIVE TOPICS

For instance, consider this narrative joke: “An obese man sits down in a pizza
parlor and orders a large pie.The waiter asks:˜Do you want it cut into four pieces
or eight?™The diner replies ˜Four, I™m on a diet.™”To get this joke, we must infer
that the diner has ignored the rule for the conservation of quantity that entails
that the pie is the same size whether it is cut into four pieces or eight and that,
alternatively and mistakenly, the diner is employing the heuristic rule that
increases in number frequently result in increases in quantity.22
Or, in the riddle “ “What do you get when you cross an elephant with a fish?
Swimming trunks” “ we attribute to the implied speaker not only the belief that
elephants and fish can mate, but that the result “ obtained by fancifully associating
certain of their identifying characteristics by means of the pun “swimming
trunks” “ could count as an answer, thereby violating the principle of charity
twice, both in terms of the implied speaker™s beliefs and his reasoning. However,
this nevertheless succeeds in connecting the anomalous punch line with the fan-
tastical question. The answer is a mistake, but a mistake we can interpret by
attributing outlandish errors “ at variance with our standing principles of inter-
pretive charity “ to the implied speaker.

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