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.
Professor of urban studies
University of Glasgow