Jokes: Exclusion and Embrace

Three jokes:

Question: Why was Helen Keller such a bad driver?

Answer: Because she was a woman.

Question: What is great about having Alzheimer's on Easter?

Answer: You can hide the eggs and look for them.

There are 10 kinds of people in the world.

Those who know binary and those who don't.

Why are jokes both wonderful and so potentially hurtful?

Ted Cohen in his book Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters sheds some light on the dual nature of jokes by examining the structural features of the joke. Specifically, Cohen notes that most jokes are highly compressed which demands that the listener fill in the background assumptions, values, and beliefs that make the joke work. If the listener cannot fill in this background he doesn’t “get it” and the joke fails to produce spontaneous laughter. Curiously, if you don’t “get” a joke no amount of post-joke explaining, filling in the background you were supposed to produce on your own, makes the joke suddenly funny to you. You can’t explain a joke into being funny. You either get it, or you don’t.

The point for Cohen is that this feature of a joke—its demand for you to supply the background information—makes jokes forms of community building. As Cohen notes (p. 28, 29, italics in original):

…you need to begin with an implicit acknowledgment of a shared background, a background of awareness that you both are already in possession of and bring to the joke. This is the foundation of intimacy that will develop if your joke succeeds, and the hearer then also joins you in a shared response to the joke. And just what is this intimacy? It is the shared sense of those in a community. The members know that they are joined there by one another…When we laugh at the same thing, that is a very special occasion. It is already noteworthy that we laugh at all, at anything, and that we laugh all alone. That we do it together is the satisfaction of a deep human longing, the realization of a desperate hope. It is the hope that we are enough like one another to sense one another, to be able to live together.

In short, when someone likes our jokes we’ve found a soul-mate, a kindred spirit, someone who sees the world like I do. This is the joy of laughter and humor. But there is a dark side here as well. This very feature of jokes makes them potentially harmful and forms of exclusion.

Take, for example, the three jokes given at the start of this post. All three are compressed and require you to fill in backgrounds and stereotypes. For example, the Helen Keller joke works only if you share a stereotype about women drivers. The binary joke only works if you know that 10 in binary code is equal to 2 in our base ten system. Those shared stereotypes and knowledge make the jokes work.

But what if you don't know that 10 in binary is equal to 2 in base ten? Does my explaining this to you make you laugh? No. In fact, if you have to have a joke explained to you it only intensifies your feeling of exclusion. Getting it or not getting it immediately marks insiders and outsiders. No amount of post-joke explanation will offset that initial realization that you were "too stupid" to be on "the inside" of the joke's borders.

Further, if the inside of a joke is a stereotype then the joke doubles the wound. A few of you might have found the Helen Keller joke offensive for just this reason. You are excluded by the joke and offended by the negative stereotype that functions as the mechanism of exclusion.

How about the Alzheimer's joke? Is it funny? It all depends upon who makes the joke. If a person suffering from Alzheimer's tells the joke then we see the joke as funny, as a form of dark humor and self-deprecation. An Alzheimer's patient has a right to tell this joke because he is an insider to the world of the joke. Told by an outsider the joke can be cruel and mean. This is why black comedians can use the n-word in their routines and white comedians cannot. (Much to the befuddlement of my students.) It's a matter of insiders versus outsiders.

In sum, jokes are boundaries. Jokes mark off a shared space. A space of shared attitudes and experiences. A joke is compressed because it functions as a kind of test. Do you share my view of the world? Are you with me? Are you an insider or an outsider? This facet of jokes--tests of inclusion--is why jokes are both wonderful and wounding. They are wonderful when they are shared. But jokes wound when they exclude people and when they deploy toxic stereotypes. Further, jokes become contested when outsiders attempt to enter the space (i.e., tell the joke) before gaining the consent of the insiders. This is why the ethnicity of a person telling an ethnic joke is vital to understanding the nature and function of the joke.

Jokes are complex and morally treacherous. They bring us together and force us apart. They embrace and exclude.

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5 thoughts on “Jokes: Exclusion and Embrace”

  1. Very well articulated again Dr. Beck!

    I posted back in "Part 3 Insult Sensitivity, Ego and Humility" searching for that fine line when the jest of an "insult" has progressed to becoming a verbal assault onto "one's person", for a lack of a better phrase.

    At that point, a reaction to an insult seems to go beyond a question of one's emotional makeup or one's ego.

    I don't know how far you will take this series, but I'm hoping you will visit this dynamic within the church - the church's insult sensitivity, and how the church presents God's insult sensitivity and "defends" Him.

    Gary Y

  2. Some teachers behind the pulpit (many times recorded and in some cases, aired on radio) will "joke" around to varying degrees, depending on their personality.

    Most of the time, the joke is upon themselves so that's fine. Sometimes however, the jokes are such that they will connect only to "believers". Certainly, an "un-believer" might easily be present in that service, or be an ear-shot away from a radio broadcast. I can't help but think that the "unbeliever" will experience a twinge of exclusivism in that moment.

    Gary Y

  3. Gary,I think the problem with taking "insult" for "god", is that it is really a projection of "self" or "ego", without a developed self identified 'ego'. Indiviudals should have individual identifications, passion, desires, gifts, and concerns that are not "connected" with "god".

    An undeveloped "self" is a child's self...the representatives of "god", who are the "child's"leaders are the identifying factors of childhood identity..such as family, tradition, nation, etc.

  4. Maybe this is also why there are some people to whom you can explain why black comedians can use the n word for hours and they still don't understand... no amount of explanation will offset the initial realisation that they were "too stupid" to understand the concept of context.

  5. Last summer we visited Branson, MO and visited Yakov Smirnoff, he opened the show with GOD talking about his loud billboards, it was very cleaver. Yakov has attained a degree in Psychology studying relationships and laughter, he said that for marriage to exist a long time one has to take the role of audience and other other performer, as long as the laughter continues the relationship holds, if the roles change its hard--my wife, Ronda is pretty content with audience, at times its hard being married to a performer. I think Yakov has something, he has been working on a reality show pilot to beta test relationship roles as performer/audience.

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