August 25, 2000

I say, I say, I say, did you know that the only way to study one people's jokes is to compare them with those of another?

Why are the Jews pre-eminent at inventing and telling jokes, in particular, jokes about themselves? This was a question first made famous by Freud, who saw jokes as often being tendentious, as hidden expressions of hostility. Later, psychobabble-minded humour scholars argued that Jewish humour is pathological, a form of masochistic aggression against the self, an irrational response to persecution by outsiders.

The problem with this thesis is that the people closest to the Jews in the production of self-mocking jokes are the Scots of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Indeed, even some of the scripts are the same. The main thing lacking in the Scots jokes is the splendid Jewish ability to make fun of outsiders. The humorous Scots spoke only of themselves. It was a time when Scottish ministers and intellectuals vied with one another to produce collections of anecdotes mocking the Scots, interspersed with moral comments that made it clear that their purpose was not self-denigration but to praise and promote Scotland. Whereas the Jews have repeatedly suffered grievous persecution, this is not true of the Scots, whose modern history has consisted of more blessings than sorrows.

The comparison reveals that Jewish humour is not masochistic. Rather, like the joking of the Scots, it is rooted in a religious tradition of intelligent and educated, argumentative democracy in which problems were endlessly dissected and looked at in new and arbitrary ways. The Jews and the Scots have excelled in joking for the same reason they have excelled in philosophy and physics.

Given the obvious fallaciousness of the accusation of humorous masochism, why was it so popular in the first place? The answer is that it was an assumption that had to be made to protect the thesis that we make fun of people because we are hostile to them. During the peak of the most recent cycle of jokes about stupid Irishmen, this thesis was widely advanced by socialistic councils using ratepayers' money and doubtful scholarship. Yet the jokes flourished after and were strongly influenced by a very similar and even larger cycle of jokes about Poles in the United States. American jokes depicted the Poles as being dirty as well as stupid, whereas this quality was never pinned on the Irish, even though the British purveyors of jokes were aware of the American model. Rather, the Irishman of the British jokes is genial, tipsy and good humoured. It would follow from the theory that Americans ought to be more hostile to Polish-Americans than the British are to the Irish. Yet at the peak of the joking, the British were locked in deadly combat with the IRA over a basic question of sovereignty. By contrast, Polish-Americans are loyal, peaceful, productive Americans whom no one notices let alone dislikes. Comparative analysis has utterly destroyed the theory that you can infer hostility just from the text of a joke, even if you know the national, ethnic or religious identity of the teller.

Almost any joke can be used in many ways, even without changing the words. It is all a matter of context, setting and tone. Yet the study of this gets us nowhere and merely throws up a large number of highly varied individual examples whose parameters cannot be defined and whose interpretation comes down to intuition. Using controlled experiments does not help, because the setting is then defined in advance as one of high seriousness and the findings cannot be applied to jokes and joke-telling in general. Only comparative analysis works.

Christie Davies is a professor of sociology at the University of Reading.

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