Unfunny foundation

November 16, 2017

I’m afraid Devorah Baum’s joke about Cohen, a Jew in Berlin in 1933, and Hitler “having lunch” (“Painfully funny”, Feature, 26 October) doesn’t do it for me.

In narrative jokes, the key to the art of telling a good one is careful establishment of context. It lends the necessary veracity to the development of the humour and provides the scaffolding for the unexpected incongruity of the punchline, wherein lies the laugh.

True to this tradition, Baum supplies the joke’s location, the protagonists and their movements; she identifies the gun that Hitler was carrying and the make of car that he was driving, a Volkswagen.

The problem with this set-up is that, in 1933, the first Volkswagen was still several years away. And as is well known from historical photographs, Hitler generally preferred the status of a nice big, luxury open-top Mercedes.

A reader who knows anything much at all about Germany in the 1930s is left puzzled by the joke’s proposition. It isn’t historically appropriate, therefore it struggles to fulfil its purpose of contextualisation. This means that Cohen’s insouciance following his encounter with Hitler makes for a flat punchline. After the joke is all over, the reader is left wondering how Hitler’s driving a car that has not yet been constructed has contributed.

This goes to show that even when academics write books of jokes, it’s still necessary to do proper research, extending across traditional disciplinary boundaries where necessary, and to develop lines of argument that are fully robust.

Alternatively, and quite possibly, I’m just not finding it funny because I still don’t understand Jewish humour.

Keith Kintrea
Professor of urban studies
University of Glasgow

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Reader's comments (1)

As a gentile who found the Hitler joke funny enough to repeat it to my wife (I rarely tell jokes nowadays), I disagree with Professor Kintrea’s assertion that “the key to the art of telling a good one is careful establishment of context” while agreeing with his final sentence, to the effect that he “still do[es]n’t “understand Jewish humour”. Perhaps he might consider the spirit of another Jewish joke, as a test of his self-evaluation: Abie and Issy are being shunted towards a pit in Minsk, in late 1941, into which they were to jump, and lie face down before being shot. Issy is shaking and turns to a nearby SS soldier: “I’m frightened; I want to go home…” at which Abie hisses: “Oi, don’t make trouble!” Here, I’ve placed a well-known Jewish joke in the historical context of Himmler’s visit to an Einsatzgruppen (Special Action) execution near Minsk in late 1941, as related by SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Karl Wolff: “An open grave had been dug and they had to jump into this and lie face downwards. And sometimes when one or two rows had already been shot, they had to lie on top of the people who had already been shot and then they were shot from the edge of the grave. And Himmler had never seen dead people before and in his curiosity he stood right up at the edge of this open grave – a sort of triangular hole – and was looking in. While he was looking in, Himmler had the deserved bad luck that from one or other of the people who had been shot in the head he got a splash of brains on his coat, and I think it also splashed into his face and he went very green and pale – he wasn’t actually sick, but he was heaving and turned round and swayed and then I had to jump forward and hold him steady and then I led him away from the grave.” ( http://www.holocaustresearchproject.org/einsatz/himmlerinminsk.html ) A more common version of this joke is along the following lines: Samuel and Bennie are brought before a firing squad. They are put up against a wall. “Any last requests?” the captain asks. Samuel says, “I would like please a blindfold.” Bennie says to him, “Sam, please... don’t make trouble!” I think this version gets rapidly to the point: obviously the two characters are already facing imminent death and (almost) nothing can make that worse, so the joke highlights the utter futility of Schwartz’s final plea to Sam. (Perhaps it also taps into black humour as a way of coping with the often tragic history of Jewish populations.) The whole point of a joke is the effect of the punchline, which to recall Koestler’s “The Act of Creation”, (1964) relies on “bisociation”: “bisociation” – a blending of elements drawn from two previously unrelated matrices of thought into a new matrix of meaning by way of a process involving comparison, abstraction and categorisation, analogies and metaphors. [Koestler] regards many different mental phenomena based on comparison (such as analogies, metaphors, parables, allegories, jokes, identification, role-playing, acting, personification, anthropomorphism etc.), as special cases of "bisociation". ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Act_of_Creation ) * To blur this by adding context distracts, I suggest, from the “bisociation” that triggers the “Aha!” moment, when the joke is experienced. * It's also worth recalling that Koestler himself spent a night under threat of execution, during the Spanish civil war.

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