Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes

Jim Holt

Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes

Why do we laugh? Where do jokes come from? And have we always laughed at the same things? In this unique, witty and fascinating little book of history and philosophy, Jim Holt reveals all - and throws in the best jokes from the past 2,000 years.A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into bar. 'What is this', the barman says, 'some kind of joke?'As he laughs his way though the history of jokes, Jim Holt discovers that most of those we trade are actually hundreds of years old: Palamedes, a Greek hero of the Trojan War, is credited with inventing the joke (before being stoned to death) and it was Philip the Great of Macedon in the 4th century BC who paid to have the first joke book compiled. In describing how they've changed over time (one of the funniest things to ancient audiences was lettuce), we come across not only the oldest but the rudest, the shortest and, allegedly, the funniest.And why do we laugh at these jokes? Holt explores the various theories: for Freud, laughter liberates us from forbidden thoughts and feelings. For Plato, we feel a sudden glory when see, say, someone tripping on a banana-skin. For Kant, we laugh when the logical dissolves into the absurd. Holt also discusses a new way of combining these theories (and looks at those who don't laugh at all - Isaac Newton laughed only once in his life, and Jesus might have wept, but did he laugh?).As for where do jokes come from, one theory is that they're made up by prisoners who have a lot of spare time, and a captive audience... 2.9 out of 5 based on 9 reviews
Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes

Omniscore:

Classification Non-fiction
Genre Humour, Society, Politics & Philosophy
Format Hardback
Pages 160
RRP £8.99
Date of Publication October 2008
ISBN 978-1846681097
Publisher Profile
 

Why do we laugh? Where do jokes come from? And have we always laughed at the same things? In this unique, witty and fascinating little book of history and philosophy, Jim Holt reveals all - and throws in the best jokes from the past 2,000 years.A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into bar. 'What is this', the barman says, 'some kind of joke?'As he laughs his way though the history of jokes, Jim Holt discovers that most of those we trade are actually hundreds of years old: Palamedes, a Greek hero of the Trojan War, is credited with inventing the joke (before being stoned to death) and it was Philip the Great of Macedon in the 4th century BC who paid to have the first joke book compiled. In describing how they've changed over time (one of the funniest things to ancient audiences was lettuce), we come across not only the oldest but the rudest, the shortest and, allegedly, the funniest.And why do we laugh at these jokes? Holt explores the various theories: for Freud, laughter liberates us from forbidden thoughts and feelings. For Plato, we feel a sudden glory when see, say, someone tripping on a banana-skin. For Kant, we laugh when the logical dissolves into the absurd. Holt also discusses a new way of combining these theories (and looks at those who don't laugh at all - Isaac Newton laughed only once in his life, and Jesus might have wept, but did he laugh?).As for where do jokes come from, one theory is that they're made up by prisoners who have a lot of spare time, and a captive audience...

Reviews

The Daily Mail

Guy Browning

An excellent little book... Jim Holt does a lovely job talking about humour without ever being humourless. He always gives a joke as an example, which means you can read this book just for laughs. But actually, it's pretty interesting without the jokes. I particularly like his definitions: a punch line is 'a little verbal explosion set off by a sudden switch in meaning', while laughter is 'a series of respiratory spasms accompanied by a burst of vowel-based notes'.

24/10/2008

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The Guardian

William Leith

Broadly, says Holt, there are three theories about jokes. There's the 'superiority' theory - we laugh when we see someone hit by a custard pie. Then there's the 'incongruity' theory - we laugh when we see the natural order of things turned on its head. And there's the 'relief' theory, supported by Freud, which says that we laugh when we are briefly 'liberated' from our inhibitions... This is a sweet, witty and intelligent little book. I only wish that, unlike a good joke, it was longer.

09/11/2008

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The New York Review of Books

Mary Beard

Holt tends to be reticent on the ancient history of joking... the laughter of Greece and Rome is covered in a few pages. With good reason. The problem here is not merely those various competing and vaguely unsatisfactory theories of laughter, or the difficulty of applying them to a culture of two thousand years ago. We have, in fact, only a very patchy knowledge of when, in what contexts, and at what Greeks and Romans laughed... In the end Holt remains a witty and engaging agnostic on the theory of jokes.

15/04/2009

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The Observer

Steven Poole

[A] rather ambitiously subtitled New-Yorker-feature-promoted-to-tiny-book, in which the author very agreeably browses through a few historical joke-books and surveys the main philosophical theories of comedy - to all of which, of course, one can cite jokes that represent exceptions. In these pages is much confirmation, were any needed, that people's tastes in comedy are ineffable.

06/12/2008

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The Sunday Times

Christopher Hart

Jim Holt's is a sketchy and choosy study, based on an essay for The New Yorker rather than a scholarly PhD. It promises more than it delivers (you won't end up with any better understanding of what makes a joke funny), but it is still entertaining in a slim, witty, New Yorkerish way, and raises a good number of laughs. "Knock knock." "Who's there?" "9-11." "9-11 who?" "YOU SAID YOU'D NEVER FORGET!"

26/10/2008

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The Literary Review

David Profumo

Given his restrictions of space, Holt has to whizz through the taxonomy of humour to the frustration of connoisseurs. Mainly American 'types' - such as Nixon, JAPs, 9/11, Unitarians and rednecks - are briefly touched upon, but one longs for something more extensive and profound by way of illustration. However, I did appreciate Nabokov's suggested retort to a nun who had objected to two students 'spooning' in the back of a literature class ('Sister, you're lucky they weren't forking'), and the Jewish intellectual who refuted the usual allegations about his people having murdered Christ: 'What's the big deal? We only killed him for a few days.'

01/10/2008

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The New Statesman

Milly Getachew

Holt's work... is driven by his personal obsessions; this is both the book's strength, in the droll and quirky details it offers, but also the source of its weakness. Comic masters such as Aristophanes, Juvenal, Rabelais and Chaucer are simply not mentioned, and swaths of human civilisation are largely ignored: there is no curiosity about jokes from Asia, Africa, Australasia or South America - that is, most of the world - in the past 2,000 years... Holt's history is also peculiarly male and peculiarly white. There is nothing from women or black comedians.

04/12/2008

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New Humanist

Natalie Haynes

The history section is extremely sketchy, and limits its definition of “joke” to a one or two-liner, the kind of thing one might find in a joke book, or from a persistent and ever-present eight-year-old. There’s very little mention of the wider definition of humour, or jokes which have a less formal structure. Which is presumably how Jim Holt managed to compose a history of jokes which mentions Aristophanes [only] once... The philosophy section is pretty limited as well – it’s actually a history of the philosophy of humour, rather than anything more incisive or original.

01/10/2008

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The New York Times

William Grimes

Holt seems less interested in getting to the bottom of his subject than he is in getting to the end of his assignment. “Slight” would be too weighty a word for this soap bubble of a book. Even after being plumped out with illustrations, it barely qualifies as a stocking stuffer. Even worse, the jokes are feeble. “Skeleton walks into a bar and says, “Give me a beer and a mop.” Huh? Bring on the dead-baby jokes.

20/07/2008

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