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Likewise, many ethnic and racist jokes involve not only errors on the part of Pol-
ish or Irish characters, but also call upon an interpretation from listeners that embrace
exaggerated stereotypes of ignorance wildly at odds with the interpretive principles
of charity that we find plausible to mobilize in interpreting ordinary behavior.
In contrast, then, to nonhumorous riddles, mathematical puzzles, and the like,
jokes end in punch lines that may in some sense be mistaken themselves and that
call for interpretations that require the attribution to or assumption of some kind
of error by the implied speaker, and/or characters, and/or the listener, implied or
actual. The solutions to nonhumorous riddles and mathematical puzzles, if they
are solutions, are error free.
So, on the one hand, to put it vaguely, the interpretation elicited by a joke is
implicated in at least one error. For, in a well-made joke, the interpretation
elicited by the punch line works; indeed, it works better than any other interpre-
tation that could pop into one™s head at that moment would. What does working
mean here? That the interpretation connects the punch line to salient details of
the narrative or riddle in such a way that the initially puzzling nature of the punch
line is resolved.The interpretation fits the punch line and the rest of the joke after
the fashion of an hypothesis to the best explanation, except that the explanation is
not constrained to be coherent with the body of our standing beliefs and knowl-
edge “ it need not avoid category errors, contradictions, inconsistency, paradox,
equivocation, irrelevance, the gamut of informal logical fallacies, or uncharitable
attributions of inappropriate, outlandish, stereotypically exaggerated, normatively
unexpected or wildly unlikely behavior, or even full-blown irrationality to human
characters or their anthropomorphized stand-ins, and/or to implied authors,
and/or to implied listeners.
The interpretations elicited by punch lines are in one sense optimal. They get
the job done “ where the job at hand is interpreting the joke. In this regard, the
ON JOKES 327

joke appeals to the optimizer in the human animal “ our willingness to mobilize
any heuristic, no matter how suspect, to solve a problem, so long as the heuristic
delivers an “answer” efficiently. The interpretations we produce in confronting
jokes render the punch line intelligible “ that is, understandable rather than
believable “ in a way that, in short order, fits the prominent, though often hitherto
apparently unmotivated, elements of the rest of the joke.
It is this feature of jokes that I think that theorists have in mind when they (ill-
advisedly) speak of jokes as rendering the incongruous congruous. Moreover,
these interpretations are compelling because they do provide a framework, ready-
to-hand, to dispel our perplexities. However, it is not quite right to say that the
incongruous has been rendered congruous, because there is always something
wrong somewhere in the interpretation, no matter how optimal it is in resolving
the puzzle of the joke.23
Incongruity theorists of humor have supplied us with many of the recurring
errors that must be imputed or assumed in order for our joke interpretations to
work.As noted earlier, Schopenhauer believed that it was a matter of the fallacious
subsumption of a particular under a category by means of a mediating sophistry.
On this view, the error embodied in jokes is always a category error.This works
nicely with many jokes, such as our earlier example of the moron and the blood
test (the relevant category error); but the theory is too imprecise “ how are we to
understand the range of “concept” (in contrast, say, to maxim) and to know when
an incident in a joke counts as introducing a concept rather than a particular?
Moreover, the theory is just too narrow; jokes mobilize errors above and beyond
category mistakes.
Other incongruity theorists have further limned the kinds of errors that can
be brought into play in jokes. Hazlitt speaks of a disjunction between what is
and what ought to be; Kierkegaard of contradiction.24 Raskin introduces the
notion of opposed scripts.25 Each of these suggests slightly different sources of
error. Arthur Koestler emphasizes the bisociation or mixing of inappropriate
frames.26 Marie Swabey™s inventory of incongruities includes: irrelevance, the
mistaking of contraries for contradictories, and the straining of concepts to the
limit case (in addition to category errors).27 Monro talks of the linking of dis-
parates, the importation of ideas from one realm which belong to another or the
collision of different mental spheres, and of attitude mixing.28 And majority
opinion agrees that transgressions of norms of appropriate behavior “ moral,
prudential, polite, and “what everyone knows” “ can serve as the locus of error
in the mandated interpretation.
These are very useful suggestions; and further incongruities can be isolated:
for example, Bergson™s concept of the encrustation of the mechanical in the
living,29 which might be extended somewhat, pace Bergson, to include the
continuation of routinized or ordinary modes of thought into the fantastical
circumstances of the joke.
Given the success of previous incongruity theorists of humor at identifying so
many of the errors that we find operative in jokes, it is natural to entertain the
328 ALTERNATIVE TOPICS

possibility that we should build incongruity into the theory of jokes as a necessary
constituent “ conjecturing that jokes must contain errors that are ultimately trace-
able to one or another form of incongruity. However, there is no reason, in my
view, to suppose that the range of possibilities so far isolated by incongruity theo-
ries exhausts the range of error in which a joke-interpretation may be implicated,
and, more importantly, there is no reason to believe that all the errors in that range
that are yet to be identified will turn out to involve incongruities.
In order to add some substance to these reservations, let me introduce a brief
counterexample from Poggio Bracciolini™s Facetiae, which was first published in
1470.30 “A very virtuous woman of my acquaintance was asked by a postal runner
if she didn™t want to give him a letter for her husband, who had been absent for a
long time as an ambassador for Florence. She replied:˜How can I write, when my
husband has taken his pen away with him, and left my inkwell empty?™A witty and
virtuous reply.”
On the account of jokes offered so far, this joke has a punch line that is puz-
zling until we reconceive the wife™s apparently nonsensical answer as a set of sex-
ual innuendoes. We need also to attribute an error to the wife; her response is
literally a non sequitur. Moreover, to my mind, such a non sequitur is not really an
example of incongruity.
For incongruity has as its root some form of contrast such that a relatively
specifiable normative alternative “ whether cognitive, or moral, or prudential “
stands as the background against which the incongruous behavior, or saying, or
whatever, is compared (generally in terms of some form of structured opposition).
But with a genuine non sequitur it is difficult to identify the norm that is in play
with any specificity. One might say that a non sequitur is just nonsense, but stretch-
ing the concept of incongruity to encompass nonsense (a rather amorphous
catchall, it seems to me) robs the notion of incongruity of definition.
That is, for something to be incongruous requires that we be able to point in
the direction of something else to which it stands in some relation of structured
contrast or conflict (above and beyond mere difference or lack of connection).
But with the wife™s answer in the preceding joke, it is hard to identify a foil with
which it contrasts in terms of any structurally determinate relation.31
So, though incongruity is very often (most often?) an extremely helpful
umbrella concept for isolating what is wrong with the interpretation elicited by
the punch line of a joke, I prefer to use the even more commodious hypothesis
that the listener™s interpretation of a joke simply involves an error somewhere,
leaving open the possibility that it may issue from incongruity or elsewhere and,
thereby, acknowledging the fact that we humans are eternally inventive when it
comes to “discovering” new ways to make mistakes.
A joke is designed to produce a transition in the cognitive state of the listener.
We are moved from a standing state (M 1) of assimilating stimuli by means of our
conventional conceptual/normative schemes “ what I think theorists often mis-
leadingly call our “expectations”32 “ into the state (M 2) of producing an inter-
pretation that does not cohere with or, at least, is not constrained by the principles
ON JOKES 329

of our standing assumptions nor assimilatable, without remainder, into our body
of knowledge.33 However, if these interpretations oppose rationality in this broad
sense, they are nevertheless optimal. For even if they cannot be linked readily and
reasonably with our standing body of beliefs, they expeditiously serve the short-
term purpose of resolving the puzzle posed by the punch line and of comprehen-
sively reframing the details of the body of the joke.
The joke-situation is one in which the listener is prompted to produce an
interpretation which is optimal, while in the broad sense, it is, in some way, not
rational.The tension between optimality and rationality is recognized by the lis-
tener, and provides the locus of her amusement. This sort of conflict, ordinarily,
might be a source of consternation; but within the joke-situation it is advanced
for the purpose of enjoyment.The compelling nature or optimality of the inter-
pretation is entertained, despite its implication in absurdity. In the joke-situation,
we are allowed to be vulnerable to the attraction of an interpretation that in other
contexts would have to be immediately rejected. Speaking only partially
metaphorically, in entertaining the interpretation, cum absurdities, while recog-
nizing the rational unacceptability of such an interpretation, we allow ourselves
the luxury of being cognitively helpless “ appreciating the cognitive force of the
interpretation (for example, its comprehensiveness and its simplicity) without
feeling the immediate pressure to reject it because of all those liabilities “ such as
its unassimilability to our body of beliefs “ of which we are aware.
Characterizing our cognitive state with respect to joke interpretations as a
variety of helplessness is at least suggestive. Laughter, the frequent concomitant of
jokes, is also associated with tickling and slight nervousness. If the focus of our
mental state with respect to jokes is an interpretation, in which optimality, with an
edge, vies openly with rationality, then it seems plausible to speculate that we are
in a state that would standardly evoke nervousness.We are vulnerable, but, as with
friendly tickling, that vulnerability does not, given the joking frame, constitute
clear and present danger. Moreover, if Ted Cohen is right in saying that the joke-
situation is one of community,34 we might amplify his observations by noting that
part of that sense of community is constituted by the willingness of the joke-audi-
ence to render themselves vulnerable in a public group.
Summarizing our thesis so far: x is a joke if and only if (1) x is integrally struc-
tured, verbal discourse, generally of the form of a riddle or a narrative (often a fan-
tastical narrative), (2) concluding with a punch line, whose abruptly puzzling
nature, (3) elicits, usually quite quickly, a determinate interpretation (or determi-
nate range of interpretations) from listeners, (4) which interpretation solves the
puzzle and fits the prominent features of the riddle or narrative, but (5) involves
the attribution of at least one gross error, but possibly more, to the characters
and/or implied tellers of the riddle or narrative, and/or involves the assumption of
at least one such error by the implied or actual listener, (6) which error is sup-
posed to be recognized by the listener as an error.
This is an account of what constitutes the joke.“Getting the joke” involves the
listener™s production of the interpretation, the recognition of the conflict or con-
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flicts staged between what I have called its optimality versus rationality, and, typi-
cally, enjoyment of said tension. Often it is maintained that in order to “get a
joke,” one must find it funny, which, I suppose, means that one must enjoy it. But
by characterizing enjoyment as only a “typical” feature of “getting a joke,” I intend
to leave open the possibility that one can “get a joke” without finding it funny or
without enjoying it. Speaking personally, I believe that I have heard certain racist
jokes which I “got,” but which I did not enjoy.
One counterexample to this account that has been proposed is the trick
exam question. And surely graders are familiar with coming across answers to
quiz questions that strike them as very funny, as if, indeed, they were a joke.
However, such examples, even where the question is designed to prompt a
wrong answer, are not jokes, for surely the test takers who advance such ques-
tionable answers neither do nor are they supposed to recognize the errors in
which their answers are implicated.
Another problem case is the sort of jest beloved by children that goes like this:
“Why did they bury Washington on a hill? Because he was dead.” Chickens cross-
ing roadways and firemen™s red suspenders also come to mind here. Such jokes
violate my preceding characterization because they are not implicated in errors.
Chickens presumably do cross roads to get to the other side and firemen, when
they wear red suspenders, indeed do so to hold their pants up.
What I want to say about such examples is that they are meta-jokes.They are
jokes about jokes; specifically, they subvert the basic underlying conventions of
jokes “ that jokes will elicit interpretations that negotiate puzzling punch lines “
in such a way that these presuppositions are exposed.These jokes introduce cer-
tain questions in the manner of riddles, while their “answers” reveal both that they
were not riddles at all and that what is involved in the listener™s conventional
stance in regard to a riddle is the anticipation of a puzzle.
Of course, the immediate aim of these meta-jokes is less exalted; it is to trick
the listener into adopting the role of a problem solver where no solution is neces-
sary. As an empirical conjecture, I hazard that children come to enjoy this kind of
play soon after they acquire initial mastery of the joke form; in a way, such meta-
jokes provide a means of celebrating their recently won command of this mode of
discourse. Moreover, I do not think that postulating meta-jokes compromises my
theory of jokes. For somewhere along the line, every theory will have to come to
terms with meta-jokes, like the shaggy-dog story.
Also, since my analysis of jokes relies so heavily on the notion of the joke
being filled in by interpretive activity, it may tempt one to indulge the long-
standing commonplace that jokes are strong analogs to artworks. I think that
we should resist this temptation. Jokes, like at least a great many artworks, do
encourage interpretation. However, the interpretation relevant to solving a
joke is not only very determinate, but, in general, has been primed by a very
economical structuring of information such that it calls forth the pertinent
interpretation almost immediately, and, therefore, abets very little interpretive
play.The organization of the joke is, in fact, generally so parsimonious that any
ON JOKES 331

attempt to reflect upon the text and its interpretation for any period of time is
likely to be very unrewarding. Jokes are not designed for contemplation “ one
cannot standardly review them in search of subtle nuances that inflect, enrich,
or expand our interpretations.
The interpretation of a joke, so to speak, generally exhausts its organization,
virtually in one shot, or, alternatively, the organization of the joke calls forth a
determinate interpretation that is barely susceptible to the accretion of further
nuance.This is not said to deny the fact that we may retell a joke in order to dis-
cern the way in which, structurally, its solution was “hidden” from listeners. But,
again, even such structural interests are quickly satisfied. Thus, the kind of inter-
pretation elicited by jokes is at odds with at least our ideals concerning the pro-
tracted interpretive play that artworks are supposed to educe.
Earlier I rejected the Freudian theory of jokes, but one might wonder
whether our successor theory is really so different. Of course, one difference
between our theory and Freud™s is that we do not support the hypothesis that
the structures of jokes reflect the modes of primitive thought that Freud dis-
covered in the dreamwork.35 However, Freud™s less specialized account “ that
jokes lift the inhibitions of critical reason “ may not seem so very different
from our claim that the joke-situation allows us to entertain a puzzle-solution
that we know is not rational.
Nevertheless, there is a subtle difference between the two views. Freud™s the-
ory implies that with the joke rationality is banished, if only momentarily. But on
my theory, the crux of amusement is the tension between optimality and rational-
ity. Rationality is not banished; it remains as a countervailing force to the “absurd”
solution; the mental state we find ourselves in is one in which we are, so to speak,
trapped between the rational and optimal. If jokes have a general moral, it is that
we humans are irredeemable optimizers. Perhaps, that is why we say we “fall” for
jokes. But part of our appreciation of the joke is that we recognize our “fall,”
which would be impossible if Freud were right in thinking that jokes send ratio-
nality on a holiday.
One outstanding anomaly, however, still plagues our theory. I claim that it is
an essential feature of a joke that the listener recognize that the interpretation
the joke elicits be in error. But, on the other hand, we are all familiar with
racist, ethnic, sexist, and classist jokes that give every appearance of being told
to reinforce the darkest convictions of racists, sexists, and so on. It is a fact that
such jokes are often told for evil purposes, but my theory makes it difficult to
understand how these jokes could serve such purposes. If my theory is correct,
then when a racist hears a joke whose interpretation mobilizes a demeaning
view of Asian intelligence, if the racist is to respond to it as a joke, it seems that
he should realize that the degrading, stereotypically exaggerated view of Asians
proffered by the joke is false.
But if the stereotypically degrading view of the racial target of the joke is false,
it is hard to see how such jokes could reinforce the racist™s view. How can racism
be served by racist jokes, if my theory is accurate? And surely we have more faith
332 ALTERNATIVE TOPICS

in our belief that racist jokes can serve racism than we can have in a philosophical
theory of the sort advanced so far. In order to deal with this challenge, I must say
something about the relation of jokes to ethics.

ETHICS AND JOKES

Initially, it may be thought that one advantage of portraying jokes as devices for
eliciting interpretations from listeners is that it explains why people are so deeply
troubled about the moral status of jokes “ or, at least, some jokes. If what we have
said is correct, then jokes involve listeners in producing errors that they may
momentarily embrace. The listener fills in the elliptical joke structure, and, in

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