You call that a breakfast?

Adam Phillips

  • Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters by Ted Cohen
    Chicago, 99 pp, £10.50, November 1999, ISBN 0 226 11230 6

As there’s nothing you can do to a joke to make it funny, except tell it well, the telling of jokes can be a testing time for everyone involved. And once they’ve been told we rarely have conversations about whether or not they have worked. Good art makes us think and talk and write; good jokes just amuse us. Either we get them or we don’t; and when jokes are interpreted they begin to sound like bad jokes. In fact, when it comes to jokes, explanation and understanding are at odds with each other. If you get the joke you can explain it, but explaining a joke rarely makes anyone happy (you couldn’t have a book called ‘The Best Jokes Explained’). So the idea of someone being serious about jokes – wanting something from jokes besides what is patently on offer – is not, in the ordinary way of things, very enticing.

The joke-theorist – it is significantly difficult to know what to call such a person – has to believe that he can compete with the joke; that he can give us something as good, if not better. He has to believe that there is something we would rather do than laugh. One of the many triumphs of Ted Cohen’s Jokes – apart from the not incidental fact that the jokes are so good that he doesn’t bother to compete with them – is that it never tries to sound more profound than the jokes it tells. Cohen’s amazement that there are such things as jokes – ‘the fact that there is a kind of story meant to make us laugh’ – and that they can work so spectacularly, and fail so dismally, has fired him to write a deliberately small-scale book on many subjects that are liable to make people think big. ‘One of the more ponderous and depressing features of large-scale moral theories,’ he writes, ‘is that they tell you what makes things right or wrong, good or bad, and then leave it to you to take a case about whose morality you feel strongly and try to outfit it with the theories’ sanctioned reasons.’ It is fitting that a book which is so finely eloquent about Jewish jokes should prefer untailored truths. Cohen gives us such a keen – and daunting – sense of what it is for a joke to misfire, implicitly likening it to what happens when a theory gets too greedy in its explanations (‘large-scale’), that he makes you feel he is doing an unusual kind of philosophy. As though he has managed to turn J.L. Austin into one of the Marx Brothers.

The philosopher on jokes, and indeed the jokey philosopher, has to be mindful of the fact that the joke is always on someone. To write with the wrong kind of seriousness about jokes – or the wrong kind of unseriousness – is unlikely to inspire confidence in a reader who may already feel compromised by the fact that he is reading such a book: is he an earnest saddie, one of those people who needs an explanation for everything, and particularly his pleasure? Books that explain poems, or dreams, or even sex can add to our pleasure in these things; but when it comes to humour, those who can, do. Yet as Cohen knows, with the cunning and sureness of tone that is everywhere in this book, the misgivings we have about doing anything with jokes other than telling them is part of their appeal. Unlike poems and dreams and sex, jokes virtually instruct us not to talk about them: all we have to do is perform them properly (i.e. very well) and for that short time they give us the life we want. Cohen wants us to be intrigued by his subject but not suspicious, susceptible but not naive. Jokes, in other words, tells us many things about jokes, and jokes, in appropriately bold type and sensibly categorised, take up over a third of Cohen’s text. It also tells us many remarkable things about intimacy, about explanation, understanding and belief, about Jews and, more or less inadvertently, about philosophers, and what Cohen thinks they should be doing with our time.

‘A philosopher,’ he writes ruefully in the Introduction, ‘has to say at least a few theoretical words. But I will attempt nothing global or universal; there will be no comprehensive theory of jokes or their purpose, not only because I have no such theory, but also because I believe there could be no such theory.’ If this makes us wonder what theoretical words are as opposed, say, to theories, it also reminds us how much philosophers in the past believed that size matters. That the reach of a theory is more a matter of what it reaches in us than of the amount of ground covered (the globe, the universe) is one of the things Cohen uses jokes to show us. Jokes, in his words, are ‘devices for inducing intimacy’; and technology notwithstanding, there is no such thing as global, let alone universal intimacy. It has been the absurd fate, Cohen implies, of large-scale comprehensive theory to produce ever more inclusive forms of explanation through ever greater denials of difference. The old-style philosophical quest for Universals is a quest for a world without too many differences; and that world is, of course, no laughing matter.

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