On telling jokes no-one gets

A while ago I saw a video of Stephen Fry explaining his love of James Joyce’s Ulysses. In it he describes how, though The Great Gatsby is as perfectly written, he prefers Ulysses because it’s comic and, as he says, comic art joins, it brings together and is therefore more joyful. Joyce himself said something similar in his notebooks. He saw comedy as a higher form than tragedy because the latter engages emotions of terror and pity while comedy brings joy. Some might see an irony in how difficult a book Ulysses is. As Fry says in the video, it’s not accessible to everyone and it didn’t seem to bring much joy to those who sought to ban it upon its initial release. But those people were probably joyless anyway. This musing on a comic but difficult novel brought me to thinking about the value of jokes that no-one, or at least not many people, get.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Spiral and Some Lines

As a member of a comedy trio we often have debates/arguments over the accessibility of a joke. Is a reference too obscure? An event or a word too absurd? I think it’s fair to say that I’m the one more likely to fall down on the side of the obscure and the absurd. To me this is, at least in part, to do with one of the ways in which comedy can join and unite.

There are different types of laugh. There’s the cruel. There’s the belittling and the demeaning. But by far the most valuable is the laugh that unites – that joins. Like all things the joke that causes the unitary laugh isn’t necessarily positive. It can be cruel, but even those unite those laughing. I’m not going to argue that laughter has a value by virtue of its uniting a bunch of cunts. I’m instead going to argue that a joke can have a value even if only one other person in the room gets the joke. In fact it might even have a greater value because of that.

As the father of two boys I’m already witnessing one, at the age of 6, developing a sense of humour which, currently, revolves around pants, farts, arses and people falling over and into things. I imagine even the most highbrow adults can appreciate the occasional pants/farts/arses/falling over and into things joke. It’s where, for some reason, our humour (if we have one) seems to originate. From there though a sense of humour develops in as many different ways as there are humans. All of our experience – our upbringing, our nationality, the environment we’re exposed to, the people we know and grow with, the culture we imbibe – high and low, all develop our humour into a uniquely sensitive tapestry triggered by some things and not others. The peculiar thing is those experiences don’t need to be the same, or even similar, to produce similarly sensitive humour tastes. I’ve noticed, for example, that the humour of the downtrodden, working class is often closer to the landed toff than the bourgeois liberal.

As far as I am aware no-one has ever studied the subject enough to pin point how one experience might lead someone to find a certain thing funny over another thing. There are theories from such barrels of laughter as Aristotle, Freud and Henri Bergson, but no actual scientific studies that I know of (enlighten me if you know of any). I’m not even sure it would be possible. Like scientific studies of diet they’re inherently complicated by how complicated people’s lives are. You can’t isolate the particular cause to the much later effect. It’s as impenetrable as trying to define what draws one person to be attracted or love another. But people love. And they laugh. But we don’t love everyone and we don’t laugh at everything. Except, perhaps, pants/farts/arses and falling over and into things. And what a dull world it would be if we did. There would be, in the end, no value in any of it.

Unity should be a good thing but not if the individual is lost in it. See mass political rallies, of both stripes, for the dangers of that. The best type of unity is the one that binds people through their own unique individuality. There may not be as many people goose stepping to this type but it’s better and there’s a lot less danger in it.

And via a commodius vicus of recirculation this brings me back to my point. It’s not all that hard to make someone laugh with some scatological or slapstick humour.

Almost impossible not to find this funny.

But there are other jokes that you need to be uniquely attuned to, to get. They’ll never reach everyone. But when those jokes hit, even if it’s just with one other person in the room, they can have a higher value. You’ve identified in some way. You’ve joined in some ineffable way. To come back to laugh rocket Sigmund Freud, he argued that the joke allows us to express things we usually repress. They allow us to be uninhibited. But of course some people are more inhibited than others too, so you can’t always expect everyone to lighten up at the same rate or to the same things. But when you find someone dropping the same inhibition at the same time then you have found something special. I imagine this is why G.S.O.H appears on so many dating websites or personals ads (so I hear) though it’s far from just sexual. One of my closest friends is so because of recognising each other’s obscure, funny, references to the same film – just before we pulled down our pants to show our arses and mutually fell over and into things. I wish I was joking.

Joyce’s last novel, Finnegans Wake, puts Ulysses in the dark when it comes to difficulty. Written in a virtually impenetrable invented language of puns and allusions in multiple languages The Wake alienated many of Joyce’s most enthusiastic supporters. Many who read it, or start to, can’t fathom that it isn’t just an elaborate prank at the reader’s expense. But it took him 18 years to write and went on to inspire some of the most influential literary voices of the 20th Century along with a generation of other artists, musicians and philosophers. Some think it even foretold the future.


He was once asked if the book was meant to be a blending of literature and music and Joyce replied,

‘No, it’s pure music.’

‘But are there not levels of meaning to be explored?’

‘No, no’ said Joyce, ‘it’s meant to make you laugh.’

This isn’t funny but it should certainly make you feel good.


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