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Joking extends well beyond telling "jokes" and sharing "joke genres" to include a joie-de-vivre so often more characteristic of leisure. Like leisure, joking is a form of humor consistent with a type of play. If joking, like play and leisure, represents the world of the possible, then the potential for joking to be of benefit to all individuals becomes possible.

There are many reasons to tell jokes. According to Paul McGhee, people joke to enjoy physical sensations. Physical incongruities lead to important serotonin infusions, and are experienced physiologically as pleasurable. One jokes to make sense out of nonsense, for the mastery and competency that can be achieved in creativity. People joke to keep themselves from hurting, so that they do not feel so bad in a difficult or unpleasant situation. Consequently, joking can function to protect a fragile ego from a bruising by taunts or malicious comments. One also can joke to hurt others; put-downs can be a means of maintaining a superior position in a socially vertical hierarchy. Or, by contrast, joking in the form of "comic social relief" can be used to defuse awkward social situations and distress. Humor has as its benefit the ability to facilitate social connections and interactions.

Thinking about joking on an international level is evocative. Interactive incongruity humor, which Ann Marie Guilmette suggests is the state of being consciously aware of alternatives, is helpful in understanding joking between nations. Like Arthur Koestler's concept of bisociation, Henri Louis Bergson's concept of incongruity humor, and Brian Sutton-Smith's "ambiguity of play," that allow for antisocial characters, "marginalized" yet diverse identities, and "imaginal" self-creating and sustaining persona would be featured in many such intercultural exchanges. Joking between different social groups is better explained in a social-normative context. Rather than "put-downs" and negative comparisons, the basis for much of the joking among ethnic group participants is reliant on understanding the values and beliefs that can be tolerated if safely and nonthreateningly violated. In comparing cultures, the simple depictions of acceptable colors in a social situation can be illuminating. For instance, the color white is used by various cultures to evoke sometimes very different meanings in comparison.

According to McGhee, "put-down humor," especially targeted at ethnic groups, was very popular in the 1970s and 1980s. As the country became more sensitized to ethnic, racial, and gender differences, the offensive quality of such humor received more attention. While this "political correction" of humor led to a sharp reduction in these types of jokes, many individuals continued to disparage and victimize individuals and groups that they did not care for or understand, or who threatened to become more powerful than the dominant culture in the society.

The unique features of early American humor are centered in the diversity of styles and multiplicity of functions that joking has served since the first visitors arrived on the North American shores. As the radical, disgruntled and persecuted groups fled Europe to escape the tyranny of the hierarchical political and religious nobility, they likely brought a "superiority humor" style of joking with them. While these groups may once have joked about the government that they felt harmed them, away from its influence, people may then have turned to humor about groups they deemed below themselves. This so-called "ethnic" humor does persist especially during conflict over scarce resources, but it has been curtailed in the name of equity seeking in contemporary society.

In contrast to the court jesters and clowning imported to North America, the early settlers perhaps shifted away from this superiority style to a reliance on "physical incongruity humor" (the equivalent of slapstick comedy) as the basis for their joke genres. Much of the storytelling would have been directed against the self, and the initial feelings of inadequacy and incompetence, especially in trying to eke out an existence on formidable wilderness lands. The depiction of such incompetence in narratives, theatrics, and role-playing mimicry would have produced much enjoyment and embarrassed relief. According to Don L. F. Nilsen, writers and storytellers created "larger-than-life" frontier heroes in an effort to confirm that mere mortals could not have tamed the "Wild West." The lives and deaths of characters such as Wild Bill Hickok, Pie-Biter Jim Baker, Paul Bunyan, Black Nell, Calamity Jane, John Henry, and Pecos Bill are featured in many a tale. The epitaph on the tombstone of Pecos Bill reads "Here lies Pecos Bill, He always lied, and always will. He once lied loud; he now lies still" (Nilsen, Humor Scholarship: A Research Bibliography, p. 136). Another example of frontier humor is the story of a "sod-buster" who staggers into the barbershop (where a frontier doctor could be found if available) complaining of back pain. Thinking that the cowboy has hurt his back wrangling cattle and wild horses or toting heavy sacks of grain and feed, the doctor tells the fellow that it will be a few minutes before he can see him. The fellow loudly announces that he is heading to the saloon until the doctor is ready for him, and as he turns to leave the barbershop, he amazes everyone with the large knife wedged into his back.

The "ambiguity" of the English language readily creates joking opportunities. The word "trunk," with a multiplicity of semantic meanings, may be the most interesting from which humor could abound. And the most classic leisure experience of "fishing" is used for symbolic and metaphoric extensions in educational and business contexts. Some examples such as "casting the net widely," "landing the big one," "fishing for ideas," "feeding you a line," "fell for my ideas hook, line, and sinker," "hoping you'll feel prepared to 'tackle' these difficult issues," "hoping to "lure" you into classes," "the deal sounds "'fishy'" to me," require linguistic sophistication.

Joking has always been, and will continue to be, a barometer of emerging issues in any society. People joke for their own amusement and entertainment, serving an important intellectual function. When the world of the possible is realized, one experiences a profound sense of mastery and resulting satisfaction as in the purest form of leisure (daydreaming).

As well, joking (especially in communications) is a two-edged sword. The same joke in a relevant context may be amusing for a variety of interpretations and types of humor. Lawrence La Fave's notion of an "identification class" allows "attitude switching" to account for much enjoyment. For example, "What's the difference between a man and a carp?" "One is a scum-sucking bottom-feeder, and the other is a fish!" may be offensive to males, and hence may not be amusing. However, if part of the joke is varied to "What's the difference between an Enron Executive and a carp?," with the same response, and even presuming that the executive is a male, it may now possibly be transformed to amusement rather than an offense for many males.

Throughout North American history, language play enjoyed the same progressive development as did earlier styles. Joking in the form of language play, early in the history of ostracized black adolescent males, pertained to "sounding." Sounding was utilized most frequently as a form of verbal assault (which started as something such as "Yo mama is. . ."). Puns (clever "turns of phrase") followed thereafter as cognitive capacity building. Eventually, irony in the form of left-handed insults and compliments (as circumstances dictated) emerged. Each of these forms of language play represented the verbal repartee, discourse, and dialogue necessary in communicating social status and relationships.

With the advent of schools and the return to societal contemplation as the basis for leisure, language play again emerged to join the other prevailing styles. Alleen Pace Nilsen and Don. L. F. Nilsen, in their Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Humor, focus on the patterns, trends, and connections in the humor used by Americans during the second half of the twentieth century. Many of their more than 100 entries describe a diversity of linguistic forms of humor such as caricature, exaggeration, irony, paradox, satire, slapstick, understatement, and wordplay. Performance humor is described through entries on stand-up comedy, radio humor, movies, drama, late-night television, sit-coms, and programs for children. Visual humor is treated in entries on public art, architecture, cartoons, comic books, and animation. The functions of these literary forms of humor are discussed as tools of persuasion, ways to attract attention, establish superiority, gain status, test limits, and save face.

Essentially the physical, physiological, emotional, intellectual, cognitive, and social basis for most experiences can be realized through joking. Superiority humor communicates messages of conflict and competition between individuals and groups, while also being powerful in radicalizing the social order. Arousal humor can be cruel and insensitive to the pains and sufferings of one's fellow human beings, while at the same time leading to repression, denial, and guilt, so that human angst can permit individuals to dwell on and recover from their own personal sorrows and debilities. Physical, cognitive, and verbal incongruities in humor alone, when essentially safe and nonthreatening violations of expectancy, allows one to rise above all of the human messes into Henri Louis Bergson's world of sublime wonder. Only when physical, intellectual, and cognitive forms of joking surpass and outperform the other, more negative types based in emotions and on social relations does joking fulfill a humane and just function and existence.

Joking serves as expressive communication, as a reminder not to focus on what one cannot do in one's life, but rather to look for the world of possibilities and alternatives suggested by lifestyles that may be more leisurely and positively enlivened!

See also: Racial Diversity and Leisure Lifestyles


Bergson, Henri Louis. Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. New York: MacMillan, 1911.

Brenneis, D. "Fighting Words." In Not Work Alone. Edited by Jeremy Cherfas and Roger Lewin. London: Temple Smith, 1980.

Guilmette, Ann Marie. Psychophysical and Psychosocial Humour Judgements as a Function of Interactive Incongruity Humour. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Windsor, Ontario: University of Windsor, 1980.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan, or, The Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-wealth Ecclesiasticall and Ccivill. London: Printed for Andrew Ckooke [i.e. Crooke], at the Green Dragon in St. Pauls Church-yard, 1651.

Koestler, Arthur. The Act of Creation. New York: Macmillan, 1964.

La Fave, Lawrence. Humor Judgments as a Function of Reference Groups: An Experimental Study. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Norman: University of Oklahoma, 1961.

McGhee, Paul E. Health, Healing, and the Amuse System: Humor as Survival Training. Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall Hunt Publishing Company, 1999.

Nilsen, Alleen Pace, and Don L. F. Nilsen. Encyclopedia of 20th Century American Humor. New York: Oryx Press, 2002.

Nilsen, Don L. F. Humor Scholarship: A Research Bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1993.

Sutton-Smith, Brian. The Ambiguity of Play. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Ann Marie Guilmette