Riddle: When Is a Joke not a Joke?
When it is a Dart, a Revolution, or a Good Way to Tell Innies From Outties
A couple had been married for about 40 years, and the wife was beginning to have some
health problems. They were not life threatening, but they did remind her that life is fragile. One
day, depressed, she asked her husband, “Honey, if I were to die, would you remarry?” He
replied, “Oh, don’t be silly. Don’t start thinking about dying. You are going to be fine.” But she
pressed, “I know, but really, do you think you would remarry?” He said, “This is silly to talk
about, but I guess I might. But we shouldn’t be talking like this.” She reflected a moment,
“Maybe it’s silly, but I’ve been wondering. If you remarried, would you live with her here–in our
house?” Again he protested, “Don’t you think this kind of talk will just make you more
depressed?” “Please tell me,” she urged. “Well,” he said, “it’s hard to say, but I love our home,
so I suppose we would live here.” She pressed on, “Do you think you would even sleep in our
bed, where we have slept together?” He replied, “Honey, I guess we would. I love that bed, and I
would not want to throw it out.” The wife asked, “Would you let her just take over; would you
let her use my golf clubs?” “No,” the husband replied, “I wouldn’t do that.” “Why not?”
“Because she’s left handed.” Think of the effect of this if you told it in a straightforward way.
This woman was very ill and thought she was dying. While she was talking to her husband about
what would happen if she died, she found out he already had planned who he would marry if she
I have been discussing jokes and riddles in folklore classes for over 20 years, but I always
felt I was never close to a real understanding of jokes. Why do humans create and enjoy humor?
Why is it that something is funny? I decided to see if I could find some answers. I have not found
exhaustive, certain answers to my questions. In fact, I feel now as a student did as he finished my
ethics class a few years ago. After the final, he thanked me for the class and gave me a note that
read: “I am more confused as I leave this course than I was when I came into it, but I feel that I
am now confused about more important things than I used to be.”
To see how my research applies to humor, I will first share some bits of humor with you,
humor of various types, not merely jokes. Second, we will look at two competing theories about
the functions and structure of humor, third, we will note some dangers of sexist humor, and,
finally, we will examine a variety of uses for ethnic humor.
Smatterings of humor
The first bit of humor occurred in 1967, while I was sitting in a final exam in Orson
Spencer Hall, scratching my head and trying to say something brilliant about T.S. Eliot’s “The
Wasteland,” or at least give the impression that I had understood it. The class and the building
were absolutely silent. Suddenly, out in the hallway a young man with a booming tenor voice
began singing, “We shall overcome, We shall overcome, We shall overcome, someday . . .” As
the singing began, we all looked up and turned our heads to the door in astonishment. Then the
entire class burst into laughter. Why? What was so amusing about hearing that song that we had
only heard before in connection with the grief and courage of those in the serious struggle for civil
rights? Later, we will look at a theory of humor that may tell us what caused the humor.
Let’s now look at a couple of jokes made at the expense of blondes. So, why do you
marry a blonde? So you can park in the handicap parking space. Or, why couldn’t the blonde
double her cookie recipe. Her oven didn’t go up to 700 degrees. Blonde jokes are similar to jokes
we call ethnic jokes. Either of these jokes could be told of Pollacks, Norwegians, or BYU coeds.
We will also look at what theories tell us about such jokes.
And a last type of humor, two riddles: When is a door not a door? When it’s ajar. How
do you get down from an elephant? You don’t; you get down from a goose.
Now, let me share some observations, ideas, and theories about humor that perhaps can
help explain how we respond to jokes and humorous incidents.
Biology of Humor
Science has given us new insights about humor. In 2000, the journal Behavioral Brain
Research reported that rats responded with playful nips and ultrasonic chirps when psychologists
tickle their ribs and bellies. The rats that chirped loudest were also the most eager to be tickled.
More interesting, when these ticklish rats were interbred for four generations the offspring chirped
twice as often as their great-grandparents” (qtd. in Johnson 24).
Some studies have even located the spot in the brain where humor is perceived. Scientists
discovered that those with damage to their right frontal lobes had defective senses of humor.
Oddly, the could still answer logical puzzles, but could not pick out the punchline of a joke
Theories of Humor
St. Augustine, writing in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D., accounts for how Christians can
respond to jokes that are generally lies. Jokes apparently violate the “Thou shalt not
lie”commandment. But St. Augustine sensed that jokes are like other artistic expressions that, as
Picasso says, are lies that can reveal a truth. St. Augustine says we must treat jokes differently
than other lies, “‘Jokes should never be accounted lies, seeing they bear with them in the tone of
voice, and in the very mood of the joker, a most evident indication that he means no deceit,
although the thing he utters be not true. . . .A person should not be thought to lie, who lieth not’”
(qtd. in Sanders 92). Jokes, though untrue, were not sins since we don’t expect them to be true.
More than ten centuries later, Thomas Hobbes, in his Leviathan, further defined and
developed a theory of humor. In 1651 he wrote, “Sudden glory is the passion which makes those
grimaces called laughter, and is caused either by some sudden act of their own that pleases them
or by the apprehension of some deformed thing in another, by comparison whereof they suddenly
applaud themselves” (57). He says we find humor when we suddenly realize we are superior or
when we see a blind, deformed, stupid, or lame person.
There is truth here. His theory accounts for a lot of what we see happening among
elementary children and adolescents. Many children spend time teasing, humiliating, and applying
epithets to others such as “sissy,” “dumbbell,” “fatty,” “gay,” and worse; they take pleasure at
“put downs.” We like to say “na-na, na-na, na-na” when we are “one up” on someone. Although
Hobbes’ theory describes a reality we all can recognize, I am not satisfied that he accounted for
all occasions of humor. Hobbes’ account of humor emphasizes the suddenness of apprehension,
which is a necessary part of a joke’s capacity to make us laugh, though not necessarily a part of
an amusing anecdote.
One of his modern day supporters says, “[. . .]all of these theories [about humor] can be
classified into two groups: those that do, and those that do not agree with the theory of
seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes”(Gruner 13). This theory of humor, beginning
with Hobbes and continuing to our time, says that humor is a way that we show ourselves to be
superior or make others seem inferior. This attempt to make others appear inferior may account
for the blonde jokes, for example.
One reason that Hobbes’ theory is held so strongly today is its essence was reiterated in
this century by Sigmund Freud. His lyrics were a little different, but the tune was the same. A
modern folklorist and humor scholar has observed, “two major theories have held sway in the
conceptualization and analysis of humor. The better known is psychoanalytic theory that was first
formulated by Sigmund Freud in his 1905 classic, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.”
(Oring 1). “Freud’s emphasis on the aggressiveness of jokes conveniently corralled earlier
notions that laughter depends upon a sense of superiority or the expression of malice”( Oring 1).
Freud acknowledged that there could be innocent humor, but he argued that most jokes
were hurtful. His theory emphasizes the purposes of a hurtful joke: “There are only two purposes
that it may serve [. . . .] It is either a hostile joke (serving the purposes of aggressiveness, satire or
defense) or an obscene joke (serving the purpose of exposure)” (Freud 96-97). As Freud
concluded: "By making our enemy small, inferior, despicable or comic, we achieve in a
roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him--to which the third person [the one listening to
the joke], who has made no efforts, bears witness by his laughter"(Freud 103).
Freud mentioned a second type of non-innocent joke, an obscene one, but as Elliott Oring
observes, the obscene jokes tend to slide into the aggressive, “In the case of jokes [in Freud’s
theory], these motives are invariably aggressive or sexual, although aggression is the more
pervasive of the two; for even sexual motives are transformed into aggressive ones”(Oring 1). A
casual survey of much modern humor seems to support Freud’s theory. Many of us take delight
in watching the pratfalls of comedians from Charlie Chaplin to the present. We laugh as the three
stooges twist each other’s noses and poke fingers in each other’s eyes. We laugh at Jerry Lewis’
clumsy spills down stairs and the mishaps that arise in Seinfeld from George’s social ineptness.
And a variety of shows have sprung up to show us home videos of common folk falling in mud,
wrecking bikes, ripping clothes, and experiencing personal disasters. We watch, and we laugh.
Add to this sort of humor the cruel stereotypes portrayed in jokes about Mexicans, Jews, Poles,
Italians, blacks, blondes, and so on. Many jokes do contain hostility, even if it is playfully
presented; many jokes delight in the supposed inferiority or deformity of the joke’s target. Hobbes
and Freud have theories that capture the hostility in what may seem only play.
Or look at the myriad expressions we use to insult, with humor, someone’s intelligence:
He is not the sharpest knife in the drawer. She’s got an IQ of about room temperature. He is a
few bricks shy of a full load. His elevator doesn’t go all the way to the top. These humorous
insults seem to go down more easily, than the “dumbbell” and “hey, stupid” epithets many of us
heard and used while young, yet they contain the same hostility.
There is hostility, too, in jokes told by Utes and Cougars about each other. For example:
How do you get a U. of U. grad off your front porch? Pay him for the pizza. Or, What do you call
a Cougar with half a brain? Gifted. What do you say to a U. of U. graduate in the three-piece suit?
Will the defendant please rise.
There are multitudes of BYU coed jokes that also fit hostility theory. For example: Why
do BYU coeds wear high heels? To keep their knuckles from dragging on the ground. How can
you tell if a BYU coed is level headed? She drools out of both sides of her mouth. BYU students
and fans have jokes about Utes. What did the U. of U. student get on his SAT. Drool. Such jokes
contain the surprise or “sudden glory’ as we ‘get’ them; they also contain the hostility described
by Freud and the pleasure at the infirmities of others described by Hobbes.
Legman, a collector and publisher of “dirty jokes,” says “‘Under the mask of humor, our
society allows infinite aggressions, by everyone against everyone. In the culminating laugh, by the
listener or observer . . . the teller of the joke betrays his hidden hostility and signals his victory.’”
[Oring concludes] Jokes, then, are assaults against real individuals and groups in the social world.
They serve the emotions by allowing the expression of aggression safely ‘masked’ as play” (qtd.
in Oring 16).
Gruner, a modern neo-Freudian writer on humor, says, “My point is that humor consists
of basically two elements: one is conflict, contest, competition, aggression, hostility, or whatever
synonym you wish. The other is ‘sudden perception’ of the result of the contest, a ‘win’ and a
‘loss.’ And that the subtraction of the first element from the test of a so-called humorous
incident or story makes the humor vanish, whereas the loss of ‘suddenness’ can eliminate or
greatly reduce the humor” (Gruner 80). Gruner identifies the aggression or hostility as the
necessary ingredient to humor, if not the sufficient one.
Think of the torrent of Bill Clinton jokes that flowed through society after the news of his trysts
with a White House intern. Although most are offensive, obviously many people are passing them
on. Q: What is the title of Hillary Clinton's new book? A: It takes a village to watch my
husband. Here is one that manages to insult Clinton and the whole state of Arkansas: Arkansas is
very proud of Mr. Clinton. All of these women confessing to having had sex with him, and none
of them are [sic] his sister!
In fact, perhaps the most horrific confirmation of the hostility in much humor comes from
Alan Dundes, a folklorist at UC Berkeley, who collected the ultimate gallows humor for the 20th
century, “Auschwitz jokes” that he found circulating in Germany, among German people that we
hope are still feeling a collective guilt about the murder of millions of Jews. These “Auschwitz
jokes,” to most of us, suggest depravity on the part of those who tell and laugh at such jokes.
Dundes, too, defends his own collecting of such jokes by asking, “Do you really think it would be
better not to report on the popularity of such jokes? [ . . . .] Prejudice, stereotyping, gross
inhumanity, and even ethnic genocide do not seem to be on the wane. Folklorists with a sense of
social responsibility have an obligation to do what they can to fight injustice” (Dundes 38). I
agree. I would not tell these jokes to my acquaintances; my friends would not tell them to me, but
they may help us understand humor, its dangers and its virtues. Here are some samples: “How
many Jews can you fit in a Volkswagen? Fourteen. Two in front, two in back, ten in the ashtray. [
. . . . ] What were Jews used for in connection with the 1936 Olympics [held in Berlin under
Hitler’s direction]? For the cindertrack and the Olympic flame” (Dundes 20-21). This humor has a
frightening level of aggression and hostility.
The failings of the Hobbes/Freud/Gruner’s aggression/hostility/game theory struck me at
a recent birthday for a family member. The humor was simple and unremarkable. We were seated
around a table laden with spicy Korean dishes. My wife sat next to Alex, a two-year old, a
beautiful little boy whom my wife often cares for. As we were looking for a food that might not
be too spicy for him, I suggested to my wife, “Give him some chicken; he could eat that.” As she
was putting little chunks of honey-sesame coated chicken on his plate, my wife and I realized that
Alex was saying, “Cluck, cluck, cluck, cluck.” We broke into laughter. What made that funny?
Gruner and Hobbes would argue that we are laughing at his innocence or, in Gruner’s word,
“stupidity.” In his naivete, Alex only thinks of chicken as the animal that goes “cluck, cluck”; we,
older, wiser, and superior, laugh at him for not knowing that chicken can also be food on his
plate. We win; he loses, Gruner would say.
However, there is another theory of humor that better explains what was funny in the
situation with Alex and his “cluck, cluck” response to the word “chicken.” Elliott Oring, in a book
called Jokes and Their Relation, outlines that theory. He says, “the perception of humor depends
upon the perception of an appropriate incongruity–that is the perception of an appropriate
interrelationship of elements from domains that are generally regarded as incongruous” (Oring 2)
In Alex’s case, the “cluck, cluck” was an incongruity; it apparently made no sense in the context
of the little tiny chunks of honey-sesame chicken. But as my wife and I recalled the moments
sitting on the floor with picture books, teaching Alex what the dog, pig, cat, and chicken say, the
sudden recognition of the appropriateness of Alex’s response sparked the humor. ( And, as you
know, the only thing worse than a bad joke is the laborious explaining of a good one.) Ordinarily,
if we don’t get it suddenly, the joke does not work for us. As we say, you had to be there.
Remember the humorous incident I recalled from 1967, when the intense concentration of
a final exam was broken by a loud voice in the hallway singing “ We Shall Overcome.” First we
looked up in a surprised daze. Then we burst into laughter. “Appropriate incongruity” theory
would explain the humor by pointing out the apparent incongruity of the loud singing of a civil
rights song in a quiet test situation. The laughter erupted, I believe, because we almost
simultaneously saw the appropriateness of the particular song to our situation, mired in the
anguish of final exams. The incongruity become appropriate, and in our sudden recognition of that
appropriateness, humor was born. This does not mean that to enjoy a joke, one has to be able to
identify the incongruity and the appropriateness. That is part of theoretical analysis, after the fact.
At the time when we laughed, I could not have said why.
Another joke helps illustrate appropriate incongruity theory further. A couple of
strangers, a man and a woman, find themselves in the same sleeping compartment on a train. After
some awkward discussion, he suggests, “ I’ll sleep on the top bunk, and you sleep on the bottom
one. I think it will be all right.” In the middle of the night, he leans over the side of the upper
bunk, awakens the woman, saying, “I’m sorry to bother you, but I am really cold. Would you
mind getting me another blanket?” She replies, with a gleam in her eye, “Why don’t we, just for
tonight, pretend that we are married.” Surprised, he smiles and says, “Okay.” She says, “Fine. Get
your own darn blanket.” The humor here is explained by the appropriate incongruity theory.
Her reply, which at first seems incongruous with her apparent seductive invitation, becomes
appropriate when we reflect how quickly the honeymoon sweetness of a marriage can fade into a
“Do it yourself” mentality.
A similar bit of humor recently took place in a bar in Virgin, Utah, called the Rancho 101.
It is a hangout for a lot of real rugged-looking cowboys. One day a young Eastern woman, who
had been visiting Zion National Park, walked in and walked directly up to a tall cowboy. “I want
you to make me feel like a real woman,” she said. He turned, looked at her, and began
unbuttoning his shirt. Taking it off, he handed it to her, and said, “Here, wash my shirt, “ as he
turned back to his beer. The humor here is the same incongruity in what you expect, but the
realization that it is appropriate. By the way, I think a joke is helped by giving it a concrete
setting. It adds to the surprise, especially if some are not sure that the story is a joke until the
Oring’s theory of humor is similar to those of Hobbes, Freud and Gruner in its shared
emphasis upon the importance of a suddenness of recognition: “The punchline must come at the
end of the joke because the abrupt and surprising revelation of an appropriate incongruity marks
the end of the joke as a discourse. It is the point of the joke–its raison d’etre” (Oring 224).
However, the differences are more important. For example, Gruner’s psychoanalytic theory is
based on what it perceives as the function of humor, specifically the aggressive function. In
contrast, Oring’s theory is based on the structure of the joke. If we look at the story of the man
and woman in the sleeping compartment, it may be that Gruner could say, “Sure, that’s funny.
What makes it funny to me is that the fellow gets his hopes up and they get punctured by the
woman’s hostile reply. He loses; she wins. The purpose is to show a putdown of the man. It all
fits in my theory.” Perhaps it does–for him.
Certainly with many jokes, both theories help explain what is going on. But in the joke just
told, I was struck suddenly by the thought that pretending to be married does not always mean
sweetness and cuddling–except in my own marriage, of course. It is the linguistic structure that
lets you expect one thing, hear another that is incongruous, and realize the second meaning is also
appropriate. And in the examples of Alex’s “cluck, cluck” and “ We shall overcome” drifting in
from the hallway, I am certain that I felt no aggression, hostility, or superiority towards Alex or
the unknown singer. There was no hostile purpose. I felt delight at them and for them. For that
reason, aggression theory is empirically unprovable as a theory. It must prove that everyone
in every humorous situation responded in a certain way. Such a claim is beyond proof.
The creative interplay in the appropriate incongruity theory does a better job of showing
how jokes may be used to express hostility, but at the same time, the structure of a joke’s
punchline appeals to a creative, playful part of human nature. Oring also observes that jokes seem
to have emerged from one of the earliest forms of humor and word play: the riddle. Many riddles
and jokes depend on a primary meaning that is somehow overridden by our recognition of a
secondary, also appropriate interpretation. How do you get down from an elephant? You don’t;
you get down from a goose. This riddle has humor because the seeming incongruity becomes
appropriate when we see a secondary meaning built on a pun on the word “down.”
For a few minutes, I want to look at sexist humor (dirty jokes), ethnic/religious
humor, jokes that circulate after a disaster, and jokes that seem to be a lament.
The second focus of my research concerns sexist jokes. A researcher named Raskin has
noted that having strong feelings about a subject [such as sex] being joked about prevents us from
enjoying it. He and others say it is too bad we “cannot take a joke.”
However, this encouragement to accept all joking as “good sports” is shocking when we
read what Gruner and others have to say about sexist humor. Gruner notes that “[t]elling sexual
jokes and expressing appreciation for them in the presence of females may be rooted in the
(conscious or unconscious) attempt of the male to enhance opportunity for sexual activity”
(Gruner 128). He quotes Camille Paglia to show how sex and aggression are inextricably mingled:
“‘Modern feminism’s most naive formulation is its assertion that rape is a crime of violence but
not of sex, that it is merely power masquerading as sex. But sex is power, and all power is
inherently aggressive’” (qtd. in Gruner 112). Freud, in his volume on humor, refers to such sexist
jokes as “smut.” He says that “smut is directed to a particular person, by whom one is sexually
excited and who, on hearing it, is expected to become aware of the speaker’s excitement and as a
result to become sexually excited [ . . . .] Smut is thus originally directed towards women and may
be equated with attempts at seduction”; if the joke is told to men by a man, says Freud, “the
original situation, which owing to social inhibitions cannot be realized, is at the same time
imagined. A person who laughs at smut that he hears is laughing as though he were the spectator
of an act of sexual aggression” (Freud 97). Gruner found that when men and women were angry,
they were more likely to find sexist humor funny. That suggest that much sexist humor is hostile
and aggressive. Sexist humor is not merely four-letter word jokes; the jokes usually portrays
someone (often a male) taking sexual advantage because of deception or force. In one study, a
cartoon depicted a young man and women sitting on the edge of a bed. As he is removing her bra,
she says, “Now tell me again how this will help stop the war in Viet Nam.” Is it really a good idea
to tell and listen to such forms of humor, as a good sport? Studies show that to be dangerous.
Although some suggest that accepting such humor might allow a cartharsis of aggressive
or sexual attitudes, in the Ryan and Kanjorski study, they found the opposite:“[their] study
supports previous research that found a direct relationship between anger arousal and hostile
humor” (Ryan and Kanjorski). And Legman, a collector of dirty jokes,
insists that the telling of dirty jokes has another function other than just
enjoyment: a functional one, as far as the male is concerned. He likens telling
sexual jokes in the presence of females to ‘verbal rape.’ If the women don’t laugh,
they can be teased as ‘poor sports.’ If they do laugh (even if against their will) they
show positive affect in the presence of words that create pictures in the mind of
sexual activity.(qtd. in Gruner 127-28)
Other studies support the same view. Fine says, “By laughing, the audience affirms the point of
view expressed in the joke. [ . . . and Pryor notes that] sexual teasing, jokes, and remarks are the
most common form of sexual harassment” (qtd. in Ryan and Kanjorski).
Perhaps the most alarming discovery was that the enjoyment of sexist jokes in men was
positively correlated with acceptance of the “Rape Myth,” the idea that women want to be forced
into sex; with the acceptance of “Adversarial Sexual Beliefs”; and the “Acceptance of
Interpersonal Violence and the self-reported likelihood of forcing sex.” Further, while women
who enjoyed sexist jokes did not generally accept the Rape Myth, there was a significant
correlation with “Adversarial Sexual Beliefs [the idea that women are ‘sly, manipulative, and self-
centered’ in their personal relationships] and Acceptance of Interpersonal Violence (the belief that
violence against women is acceptable)” (Ryan and Kanjorski).
These studies suggest that rather than forgetting political correctness and being “good
sports,” we should guard against the potentially seductive and aggressive motives behind some
jokes, as well as the misogynist views that may be held by men and women who show a pattern of
enjoying and telling sexist jokes.
The Functions of Ethnic Humor
Another area of my research explored how humor is used among ethnic, religious, and
other groups. As I discuss some of these uses, I will rely heavily on jokes told about and within
the Mormon culture since I have collected more of those and more of you can relate to them. An
important use is to set boundaries.
Ethnic humor is not only shared within groups to establish the superiority of the members
of a group, however. As Leveen points out, “four basic combinations of joke relationships exist:
1) a group member telling a joke to another member; 2) a member telling a joke to a non-
member; 3) a nonmember telling a joke to a member; and 4) a non-member telling a joke
to a non-member” (Leveen). Each of those four relationships may regulate which jokes are told,
and it may change the purpose and the effect of the joke. Non-members of a dominant culture or
group telling jokes to other non-members have the highest chance of expressing hostility and
criticism; members telling jokes to other members of the same group have the highest chance of
being self-laudatory or only mildly critical.
In fact, the same joke may be told in different settings with different effects. Consider the
following joke collected in the South before the civil rights movement changed voter registration
requirements that were often contrived to prevent blacks from voting. A black man is attempting
to register to vote in Mississippi. He quickly passes the literacy test which the registrars give him.
So the registrars confer for a moment and give him a Chinese newspaper, asking him if he knows
what the headline means. “Yeah, I know what it means,” he replies, “It means niggers don’t vote
in Mississippi again this year” (Leveen). If that joke is told among whites, it might be told with
pride at the successful ruse which kept undesirables from voting. If the joke is told among
African-Americans, it would express bitterness, hopelessness and grief.
Innies to innies
Ethnic and religious jokes help us define ourselves by characterizing the group that we
belong to, the “innies,” and identifying the differences between us and others, the “outties.” For
example, let’s look at this riddle joke: How do you know if you are at a Mormon wedding? The
bride is not pregnant, but her mother is. This joke pokes fun at large Mormon families, with one
child getting married (perhaps at a very young age) while the mother continues bearing children;
however, within the Mormon community, having large families is generally looked at favorably,
so the criticism is slight. The first part of the joke defines Mormon brides as being more apt to be
chaste than “outties,” people outside of the culture. It allows Mormons to take pride in the
(supposedly unique) emphasis upon chastity. A similar bit of humor, part of a “You might be a
Mormon if . . .” list, says “You might be a Mormon if you are an aunt or uncle by age three.” This
identifies the Mormon characteristics of having large families, extending the bearing years over
two or three decades, and perhaps, of having women marry at a young age. If told within the
group, there would be little offense since it merely defines how Mormons are different. Another
riddle joke asks, “What do you get if you play Mormon Tabernacle Choir records backwards?”
“You get Jell-O salad recipes.” This too has a light spoof at the Mormon trait of having Jell-o
salads at many gatherings. More importantly, it emphasizes that we will not hear the satanic
messages supposedly encrypted onto some “Gentile” outsider records. Mormons are the good
folks, distinguished from those outside the fold.
Other humorous stories show Mormons as more clever than the “outties.” Two Mormon
Elders pass the residence of a Catholic priest each day as they go out proselyting. They endure
quietly his daily abusive harangues as they pass. One day he strolled out, calling, “Hello, sons of
the Devil.” Respectfully, they reply, “Hello, Father.” Another: There were two Baptist ministers
who approached the Mormon elders with a small vial of poison. They say, “If you are believers in
the true God, then you can drink this poison and it will not hurt you. Let’s see how much faith
you have.” One of the elders replies, “Why don’t you drink it, and we’ll raise you from the
dead.” That joke puts the burden of proof on the “outtie” accusers and assumes their faith will not
save them. Most self-laudatory jokes would be told among members since they might be seen as
full of pride or offensive to outsiders. Such jokes show Mormons in a good light, so Mormons
can laugh proudly at such characterizations of themselves as superior to those “outties.”.
Mormon humor can adapt with the times. Over ten years ago I collected this joke: What
do you get when you cross a Mormon with a Mexican? A year’s supply of stolen hubcaps. That
manages to praise the “innies” as people who prepare for future disasters and insults the thieving
“outties.” But the number of Hispanics in the area and in the LDS church has made that joke
more likely to offend. A more recent version of this joke simply says, What do you get when you
cross a Mormon with a thief? A year’s supply of stolen goods in the basement. That is less
offensive to any particular ethnic group, but still draws a defining boundary of praise around those
inside the group. One observer has pointed out that ethic groups can be defined by social,
geographical, or moral boundaries or any combination of those. Ethnic jokes can help define
those boundaries (Leveen).
For example, What is the difference between a BYU coed and a U. of U. coed. A BYU
coed is looking for a husband, and the U. of U. coed is looking for the father. Whether we looks
at this as just humor defining students or see it as an LDS joke because BYU is an LDS
institution, this riddle joke clearly sets the moral boundaries. BYU coeds, the innies, do want to
get married, but they are not promiscuous as are the outties.
Consider this Jewish joke: A rabbi and a priest got into a bad wreck. They were both
okay, but both cars were badly damaged. The rabbi observed that God must have important work
for both of them to do since they were both spared. Then the rabbi looked into the back of his car
and pulled out a bottle of wine. “Look,” he said, “here’s another miracle. This bottle of wine did
not break. God must have intended for us to share it and celebrate that God has spared us.” He
gave it to the priest, who took a few big swigs. He then handed it to the rabbi. The rabbi handed
it back to the priest. “Aren’t you having any?” asked the priest. “No,” said the rabbi, “I think I’ll
wait for the police” (King 153).
“A Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a rabbi were discussing what they would like people
to say about them after they had died and their bodies were on display in open caskets.
The priest said, ‘ I would like someone to say, “ He was a righteous man, an honest man, and very
The minister wanted someone to say, ‘He was very fair and kind, and he was very good to his
The rabbi said, ‘I would want someone to say, “Oh, look! He’s moving”’” (King 165).
A number of Jewish jokes that might be told within the group emphasize the intellectual
superiority of Jews more than the moral superiority.
There are other uses for ethnic humor. Hobbes explained that one may tell a joke to show
he is superior to his former self. Gruner explains in several places in The Game of Humor that I
may tell or laugh at a joke that is directed toward my own group or profession, thinking that the
stereotypical label doesn’t quite fit me (Gruner 85). As example, let’s look at jokes that were
shared within the Mormon community in which we laugh at our stereotypes a bit:
Q: How many Mormons does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A: Five. One to screw it in and four to bring casseroles.
Q: How many RMs [returned missionaries] does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A One. He just stands under it and expects the world to revolve around him.
Q: What is the pushiest thing in the world?
A: A Mormon missionary with an Amway distributorship on the side.
Q: What is Utah’s official wine (whine)?
A: I wanna get married in the temple.
Also consider some Jewish jokes that also laugh at some Jewish stereotypes:
Q: “Why does Orthodox Judaism forbid pre-marital sex?
A: Because it might lead to mixed dancing” (Leveen)
Q: “How do we know that Jesus was Jewish?
A: Because he lived at home with his mother until he was thirty; he went into his father’s business,
and he had a mother who thought he was God” ( qtd in Leveen).
Or there is the story of the tour group in heaven. As they approach one community, the
guide asks them to be silent as pass the area. After they pass, someone asks why they had to be
quiet. The guide replies, “ Oh those are the Mormons [or Catholics or Lutherans], and we don’t
want to bother them. They think they are the only ones up here.” These jokes poke fun at some
aspect of Mormon culture, while the joke-teller (and the joke-listeners who laugh) perhaps think,
“This doesn’t fit me.”
Much of this humor, I have observed, is not only in joke form. Much of it is in true
narratives, narratives that show how, in a church with lay leaders, not all will go well.
A colleague has shared with me the delightful incident during a “testimony meeting,” in
which members arise from the congregation, give thanks or express love or appreciation for their
testimonies and blessings. The last speaker of the day, Sister Jones, had cried a great deal as she
spoke of the blessings in her life. “I am sorry I am such a boob,” she lamented. As the bishop
stood up to close the meeting, he tried to comfort her, “Sister Jones, don’t worry; we are sure
the Lord loves big boobs just as much as everybody else.” The ambiguity there sparks humor.
I received some e-mail humor which spoofs some Mormon stereotypes. It says that in
celebration of Barbie’s 40th birthday, Mattel has created a Mormon Barbie for the folks in Utah.
The most popular, Celestial Barbie, comes with 8.4 children. She wears a mid-calf flower print
Laura Ashley dress with conservative flats (no heels), a bow in her flowing shoulder-length hair
with puffy bangs. Barbie wears a permanent smile, knows how to bake bread, store wheat, feed a
family of 12 on less than $200.00 a week, make casseroles and Jell-O salads (without a recipe),
and still finds time to read her scriptures. She comes with a MAV, Mormon Assault Vehicle (a
Dodge, Ford, Nissan mini-van). When you pull the cord in her back, she becomes emotional,
teary, and says things like, “You have such a sweet spirit, Sister Jones,” or “Love ya.”
Occasionally you can find one that says “Oh my heck!” but be warned: this is a manufacturer’s
defect. Celestial Barbie would never say “heck” because it is a swear word. Whoever has time to
make up and promulgate jokes like these probably does not have 8.4 kids. It is likely that the
teller of this sort of joke is an “innie,” but one who can laugh at the truth hidden therein and
perhaps think she is not quite the one described.
One of the first such jokes that I recall hearing is the story of some folks from heaven
who had been down touring hell. They report back to St. Peter that things were not so bad.
Everywhere they looked, there were orchards, wheat and corn fields, and wonderful gardens. St.
Peter shakes his head, “Those damned Mormons have been irrigating again.” This reinforces the
pride Mormons take in having made “the desert bloom like a rose.” There is also the joke about
the Pope going in to speak to the college of cardinals. “I have some good news and some bad
news,” says the Pope. “I just received a call from the Lord telling me that He has returned and
the millennium is set to begin. The bad news is that the call came from Salt Lake City.”
Such jokes admit to others within a group that we too have minor follies. If they are told to
people outside the group, they are admissions of humanness.
We choose carefully to whom we tell certain jokes. As Elliott Oring points out, “An
emotional tie to a particular topic may produce the feeling that the subject should not be joked
about at all . . . ” (Oring 12). I may not tell the joke about large families to my brother’s sister-in-
law who just had her thirteenth child. I may not tell the RM jokes to a missionary freshly returned.
But with an appropriate target listener, these jokes might be told among “innies” to laugh at our
stereotypical cultural tendencies, while feeling that we ourselves may be aware of and above some
of those tendencies. Likewise, BYU coeds and lawyers often tell the jokes aimed at them, thinking
they do not apply to themselves.
Turning more closely to Mormon humor, we do see jokes that laugh at parts of the
culture without much self praise woven in. Such jokes are more biting. For example, Bert Wilson,
a folklorist working at BYU tells of a young girl who comes back home pregnant after her first
semester at BYU, planning to drop out of school. The parents try to make the best of a bad
situation, asking if the girl could marry the father. The girl replies, “Oh, I couldn’t marry him. He
smokes!” (Wilson, “Seriousness” 11-12). This mocks the cultural emphasis upon conformity to
the Word of Wisdom, which by emphasis seems to be more serious than conformity to chastity.
There is also a moving story of an LDS soldier in Viet Nam who was shot directly in the
chest. The medic crawled over to where he lay, assuming he was dead. However the Mormon
boy soon revived. The bullet had hit his small service edition of the Book of Mormon that he
carried in his pocket. It seems the bullet just couldn’t get through 2 nd Nephi. The miraculous
sparing of life becomes a disparaging comment on reading the Mormon scripture. Or there is the
riddle joke, one that might be told by those within or without the Mormon community: why do
you always take two Mormons fishing (or hunting) with you? Because if you only take one, he’ll
drink all the beer. This jokes at the hypocrisy of some Mormons, who may sin if they are not
watched. But Leonard Arrington, the former LDS Church Historian observes, “‘Revelatory self-
directed humor concerning the weaknesses and special difficulties of Mormons is rare’” (Wilson,
Other jokes may be told by some within a group to those outside the group. One purpose
may to refute or scoff at stereotypes. Lois Leveen says, “Ethnic jokes may indicate that it is not
the ethnic individual who is laughable, but rather the stereotype–and those who believe the
stereotype to be truthful and accurate–at which the joke teller and the joke listener laugh
together” (Leveen). Leveen gives an example: “Phil Nee, a Chinese-American comic, challenges
stereotypes of Asians” who are assumed to all look alike, even to themselves. He says “‘It’s not
always fun being Chinese. My girlfriend left me last week, for a guy who looks exactly like me’”
(Leveen). Such humor not only pokes fun at stereotypes, but being able to joke about our own
culture can be a way of making us appear more approachable or less likely to be too offended.
My wife and I listened to a Korean comic who said he would explain to the crowd, nearly all
Caucasians, how to tell Koreans, Chinese and Japanese apart. Grabbing the skin on his temples he
pulled it up and back. “Koreans have eyes that slant up, see.” Next, he stretched the skin
downward. “Chinese have eyes that slant down, see.” Then he stretched open his right eyelids.
“Japanese have one eye that slants straight back; the other one is very open from taking so many
photographs.” This joke says, “Hey, I’m a regular guy. I can laugh at myself and at stereotypes.”
Let’s look at another Jewish joke that laughs at stereotypes about Jews:
“Here are three Gentile jokes that Jews love to tell:
A gentile goes into a clothing store and says: ‘This is a very fine jacket. How much it is it?’ The
salesman says: ‘Five hundred dollars.’ The Gentile says, ‘OK, I’ll take it.’
A man calls his mother and says, ‘Mother, I know you’re expecting me for dinner this evening,
but something important has come up and I can’t make it.’ His mother says: ‘OK.’
Two Gentiles meet on the street. The first one says, ‘ You own your own business, don’t you?
How’s it doing?’ The other Gentile says, ‘Just great! Thanks for asking’” (King 170-71). This
works if you are acquainted with stereotypes about Jewish haggling for a better price and the
complaining nature of Jewish mothers and businessmen. (I did not grow up knowing any Jewish
people, but the stereotyped of haggling reached our ranch in Arizona. People spoke of “jewing”
someone down to get a better price.)
Such humor deflates stereotypes and confirms the humanness of the ethnic group. It helps
tellers and listeners to safely cross ethnic boundaries into the larger community of laughter.
Leveen concludes, “Humor is a means of ingratiating one’s self, earning acceptance of one’s self
and –through collective identity–one’s group within the established culture” (Leveen).
Ethnic and religious jokes can serve many purposes, within and across ethnic boundaries,
depending on who is the joke-teller and who is the listener. Groups can praise and define
themselves, demean others, challenge stereotypes, and show an ability to laugh at themselves that
can help them cross group boundaries. But a more serious use of ethnic humor can come from
people who are feeling oppressed or marginalized. This occurs among much humor told by
“outties” to other “outties”; that is people who feel marginalized by a more dominant group or
groups. “Ethnic joke tellers use humor to challenge playfully and penetrate gradually the discourse
relations of the dominant culture within which they are marginalized. Humor serves as an outlet
through which repressed feelings can safely be released” (Leveen). Such jokes often have a
political target and may be shared in a minority ethnic group, or even among a minority within a
group. “George Orwell called political jokes ‘tiny revolutions.’ Under tyranny, humor is a form of
coping . . . .” (qtd. in Will). For example, during the Soviet crackdown in Poland some years ago,
a Warsaw sociologist (who did not want his name known) said, “‘Jokes are the one relatively safe
way of saying you hate the Soviets or the government [ . . . .] The only weapons most of us have
left are our wit and sense of humor’” (qtd. in Kempe). For example, there were many jokes about
the ZOMO, the much feared Polish riot police. “Why do ZOMO’s travel in threes? One reads, one
writes, and the other keeps an eye on the two intellectuals” (Kempe).
Similar jokes circulated in the former Soviet Union. According to one joke, when
Gorbachev first addressed the nation, he said, “‘ When I came to power the economy stood on the
edge of an abyss. I am proud to say that since then we have taken a bold step forward’” (qtd. in
Will). Another goes, “‘After the revolution everyone will have strawberries and cream.’ ‘But I
don’t like strawberries and cream.’ ‘After the revolution, everyone will like strawberries and
cream’” (Will). This sinister joke suggests that any who do not agree with the party will be brain-
washed or dead. Or, “A boy asks, ‘What will communism be like when perfected?’ His father
replies, ‘Everyone will have what he needs.’ The boy asks, ‘But what if there is a shortage of
meat?’ The father replies, ‘There will be a sign in the butcher shop saying, “No one needs meat
today”’” (Will). Some Jewish jokes also are bitter, but humorous, expressions pointed at
discrimination towards Jews. For example, “A rabbi and a priest got into a car accident. It seems
the priest had been tooling along at a rapid clip and smashed right into the rabbi.
Along came a cop, who looked the situation over quickly and then said in his thick Irish brogue,
‘Now, father, tell me . . . How fast was the rabbi backing up when he hit you?’” (King 169).
“Two nuns were discussing their travel plans. ‘Where should I go on vacation:’ the first nun
asked the other. ‘Go to Israel,’ said the second nun.
‘No. There are too many Jews there,’ said the first nun.
‘Well, go to New York, then.’
No, said the second nun [sic], ‘there are too many Jews there!’
“How about Miami?’ asked the first nun [sic}.
Once again the second nun replied, ‘No. There are two many Jews there.’
A Jewish lady who had been sitting nearby heard the whole conversation and replied: ‘Go to hell.
There are no Jews there!’” (King 165).
Those are groups with whom most of us have much sympathy. But in our own country
there have been some whites who resisted the civil rights movement, for example. A joke
collected in the South during the Civil Rights movement asks: What do they call a Negro with a
Ph. D.? Nigger (qtd. in Oring 18). Such jokes, Orwell says, are ‘tiny revolutions’ against
changes that caused some people anxiety. The humor makes them seem less offensive.
Within the LDS community, there was a similar outcropping of rebellious humor after the
1978 revelation declaring the priesthood was to be given to African-Americans. “According to
Leonard Arrington and Davis Bitton, the announcement of the priesthood revelation ‘was
received, almost universally, with elation’” (Wilson and Poulsen 11). However, William Wilson
and Richard Poulsen, two BYU folklorists, collected a cycle of racist jokes which they claimed
were “ubiquitous” along the Wasatch Front (Wilson and Poulsen 11). These jokes reflect the
same kinds of anxiety among some about change and rebelliousness against authority as do the
southern jokes during the Civil Rights movement. Following are some: “Knock, knock. Who’s
there? Isa. Isa who? Isa yo new home teacher. Have you heard they’re taking down the statue of
Moroni from the temple? Yeah. They are replacing it with one of Louis Armstrong. Do you
know why President Kimball received his revelation? He was doing his genealogy and he found
an ancestor named Kunta Kinta Kimball. Do you know how President Kimball received the
revelation? In the form of a subpoena. Did you hear they are digging up the rose bushes at the
temple? They’re replanting the area with watermelons. (Wilson and Poulsen 12). And many
more. The use of humor by a frustrated minority in the LDS community was also a covert,
“harmless” rebellion, a way to express anxiety about uncomfortable changes.
Another joke which expresses frustration with the status quo is as follows: Do you know
how bishops are chosen? “The stake leaders find the most righteous, spiritual, most loved person
in the ward–and then they call her husband” (qtd. in Anderson A1) While this joke is not as
offensive as the racial jokes, many who hear or tell this joke may feel a touch of bitterness at the
unswerving nature of LDS male patriarchy, in spite of the advances made by women in other
areas. This joke, too, is a “tiny revolution.”
I want to turn to another kind of humor, one that is perhaps hardest to understand. These
are labeled disaster jokes. Most of you recall the Challenger spaceship disaster some years ago, a
mission in which Christa McAuliffe, a teacher, was aboard. Soon after the disaster, students
reported hearing jokes such as the following:
“Q: What does NASA stand for?
A: Need Another Seven Astronauts.
Q: What is the official NASA Cereal?
A: Space Crispies.
Q: How do we know Christa McAuliffe, had dandruff?
A: They found her head and shoulders on the beach.
Q: What were Christa’ last words to her husband?
A: You feed the dog; I’ll feed the fish” (Gruner 67-68).
Q: “What color were Christa McAuliffe’s eyes?
A: Blue. One blew this way and one blew that way.
Q: Why do they drink coke at NASA?
A: Because they can’t get seven up” (Oring 32).
Similar joke cycles circulated after Chernobyl, and after smaller events such as the
Clinton/Lewinsky affair, and after John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s death in an air crash. Ordinarily, when
we hear these jokes, the response is to groan and say, that’s terrible.” Then we look for someone
to whom we can tell the joke..Many observers have tried to understand joking responses to
disasters. A folklorist named Ellis collected humor related to the World Trade Center disasters.
He claims “that media disasters provoke humor of a certain predictable kind, and that
participation in it is not deviant but normal and predictable” (Ellis) One folklorist says, “‘The
more horrible things are the more you need these things.’” and psychologists call the humor a way
of coping (qtd. in Oring 34). Others see the humor as a way of distancing ourselves from the
disaster or a way to rebel against excessive media attention (Oring 34-36).
Our disaster is the destruction of the World Trade Center towers and the taking of
thousands of lives just over a year ago. It is almost inconceivable but true that within two hours of
the fall of the towers humor was being posted on the internet. On alt.humor this riddle was posed:
Q: “What does World Trade Centre Stand for?
A: Welcome to Canada; World Terrorist Convention; What? Trade Centre” (Ellis)
The responses were full of anger and obscenities, as you might expect. But the jokes kept
coming. On September 13, 2001, a New Yorker posted the following: “The only way I’ve ever
been able to deal with something on a scale like that has been to make bad jokes about it, and
hope that my friends know that they’re just bad jokes. I can’t remember having malicious intent
in whole life, but I can’t keep myself from making stupid jokes and I hate myself for it.” (qtd. in
Ellis). These are some of the other jokes that circulated; some obvious adaptations from earlier
Q: “What was the last thing going through Mr. Jones’ head sitting in the 90th floor of the WTC?
A: The 91st floor.
Q: What color were the pilot’s eyes?
A: Blue. One blew this way; the other blue that way.
Q: Where do Americans go on vacation:
A: All over Manhattan” [These were taken from a list of 45 items sent to alt.tasteless.jokes and to
other lists on Sept. 17, 2001, including a “top ten” list of good things about the WTC attack]
(Ellis). Others included
Q: “Who are the fastest reader in the world?
A: New Yorkers. Some of them go through 110 stories in 5 seconds.
Q: What is the difference between the attack on New York and the Oklahoma City bombing?
A: Again foreigners prove they can do it better and more efficiently. [and} KFC has a new meal
deal . . . .2 Flaming Towers, 4 Hot wings, and A Big Apple Crumble” (Ellis). From Britain came
jokes such as the following:
Q: “What’s the difference between the World Trade Center and a wonderbra?
A: A wonderbra can hold two jumbos.
Q: Why is the USA the country where miracles come true?
A: Because it’s the only country with a four-sided Pentagon” (Ellis).
Shortly after these kinds of jokes, as attention began to focus on Osama Bin Laden and the
Taliban in Afghanistan, much humor was aimed that way. For example, on Oct. 3, 2001, John
McCain went on the Letterman Show and asked a joke that had been going around for awhile.
Q: “What’s Osama Bin Laden going to be for Halloween?
A: Dead” (Ellis). Others circulating within a few weeks of the attack included the following:
Q: “What does [sic} Osama Bin Laden and General Custer have in common?
A: They both want to know where those Tomahawks are coming from!
Q: How is Bin Laden like Fred Flintstone?
A: Both may look out their windows and see Rubble.
Q: How do you clear a Afganistan [sic] bingo hall?
A: Yell b52 as loud as you can.
Q: What is the Taliban’s national bird?
A number of images of a proposed rebuilding of the WTC floated around as soon as September
12th showing four towers fashioned as an obscene gesture. Also a number of humorous listings
suggested sending all the women under the Taliban to college as punishment or to give Osama
Bin Laden a sex-change operation and turn him loose naked on the streets of Kabul (Ellis).
Some British WTC jokes were aimed at the Irish:
Q: “Irish Air Disaster: a Cessna has crashed into a graveyard in Dublin. Irish Rescue workers have
found 827 bodies so far; digging continues.(Sep. 19) The IRA have hijacked the goodyear [sic]
blimp . . . apparently, they’ve hit Big Ben 5 times already. Apparently the Irish army has
surrounded a department store in Dublin. They are acting on a tip-off that Bed linen is on the
second floor” (Ellis). And Australians adapted the humor to joke at stereotypical views of the
Aborigines. “Police have since released the names of two of the terrorists–bin Smokin and bin
Drinkin. An accomplice, bin Working, could not be found” (Ellis).
We are better able to laugh at foreign humor and hostile humor aimed at Bin Laden of the
Taliban, but it is a part of our psyche as humans to respond to these kinds of media with a humor
that is not usually permitted when grandpa or Aunt Sarah dies. Is it a way to cope? To rebel? To
speak the taboo? To grieve? Is it a combination of these. It is an area that still needs research.
The humor that is grieving
Some humor, I feel certain, is also a way of grieving. In Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro,
Figaro is asked, “Why do you laugh all the time.” Figaro replies, “I laugh so I may not cry.” A
Jewish writer, Waldoks, described growing up in a home with parents who were Holocaust
survivors; his mother wept often about the Holocaust and his father refused to ever speak of it:
“Between his father’s silence and his mother’s pain, Waldoks faced a choice: laugh a lot or cry a
lot. These two lie close to each other on the emotional spectrum–sobs and guffaws even sound
alike, he says. ‘I decided laughing is better’” (qtd. in Oster). Another Jew describes the hidden
pain of growing up in the home of a Holocaust survivor. It was like “‘Swimming in a sea of
skeletons.’ Humor, she says, is the lifeboat that has carried them to sanity” (qtd. in Oster). A
writer who has studied Jewish Holocaust humor says, “Even in the camps there was laughter.
Hannelore Eisinger remembers toiling in the potato field at the Westerbork transit camp in
Holland. She and her friends invented elaborate recipes or told jokes. It was a case of laugh or
cry, she says” (Oster).
One joke told about the camps among survivors tells of “Two Jews [who] are about to
enter the gas chamber in Auschwitz. One of them turns to the SS guard to make a last request for
a glass of water. ‘Sha, Moshe,’ says his friend. ‘Don’t make a fuss’” (qtd. in Oster). This joke
uses the stereotype of the long suffering chosen people. It may seem incongruous to think that
even in the face of death, Jews would worry about making a fuss. But it is appropriate to the
A daughter of a Holocaust survivor, from London, talked about humor in her youth,
“‘Looking back it was a way of dealing with something very painful and scary.’” Jokes she told as
a child included, “‘Why did Hitler commit suicide?’ she asks. ‘Because he got the gas bill.’ or
‘What’s the difference between a loaf of bread and a Jew? A loaf of bread doesn’t scream when
you put it in the oven’” (qtd. in Oster). Jokes such as these, told among Holocaust survivors
within their ethnic group are shared grievings, having a very different effect from those collected
in Germany by Dundes.
I first developed the basis for a talk on humor a couple of years. I posted the talk on the
internet for my students to read. About a year ago I got an e-mail from a young woman finishing
her Ph.D. at a university in Israel. She had found 80 people who had all been youngsters who had
survived the death camps in Nazi Germany. In her doctoral dissertation, she had classified and
listed the jokes that those in the camps had told to each other. She also did an analysis of the
jokes, identifying those that seemed to be a way of laughing together in grief and those that were
barbs aimed at their captors. She shared some with me. They were horrific; if they had been told
by non-Jews, most of us would have despised the tellers. But I wept as I read them.
A recent joke goes like this: “A visitor came to Israel and saw the Western Wall. Not
being too well versed in religious aspects, he inquired of another tourist about the significance of
the wall. The other tourist explained, ‘This is a sacred Wall. If you pray to it, God may hear you.’
The visitor walked close to the wall and started to pray. ‘Dear Lord,’ he said, ‘bring sunshine and
warmth to this beautiful land.’
A commanding voice answered, ‘I will, my son.’
The visitor said, ‘Bring prosperity to this land.’
‘I will, my son.’ ‘Let Jews and Arabs live together in peace, dear Lord.’
The voice answered, ‘You’re talking to a wall’” (King 5).
A couple of jokes collected during a soviet crackdown on democratic reforms in Poland
share the same qualities. “Did you hear that Soviet scientists have developed a new animal by
crossing a cow with a giraffe? It can graze in Poland while being milked in the Soviet Union”
(Kempe). And “President Reagan goes to God and inquires, ‘Tell me, Father, how long until my
people are happy.’ God replies: ‘One hundred years.’ Reagan weeps and leaves. Helmut Schmidt
of West Germany goes to God and asks, ‘Tell me, Father how long until my people are happy?’
‘Two hundred years,’ says God. Schmidt weeps and leaves. Then Jarulzelski [the Polish leader]
goes to God and asks the same question, ‘How long until my people are happy?’ God weeps and
leaves” (Kempe). Is it possible to grieve while telling a joke. Yes.
Humor is a sustaining part of our humanity. In Umberto Eco’s famous novel, The Name
of The Rose, William has discovered that the old blind monk, Jorge, has committed several
murders while intent on destroying Aristotle’s writings on humor lest they introduce
lightheartedness into the church. William says that the writings on humor are not the danger;
rather, he says to Jorge, “You are the Devil. . . .The Devil is not the Prince of matter; the Devil is
the arrogance of the spirit, faith without smile, truth that is never seized by doubt” (Eco 581).
My mother reminds me that as a teenager, while I was musing on the oddities of animals
and our neighbors, I said, “You know, Mom, God must have a great sense of humor.” As I look
at the suffering in the world, and as I look at the difference between the person I would like to be
and the person I am, I too must weep or laugh. In fact, I do both. Richard Cracroft, in his
speaking of the value of humor to those in the LDS community, quotes Mark Twain: “ Mark
Twain was right when he wrote, ‘Humor is the great thing, the saving thing at last. The minute it
crops up all our hardnesses yield, all our irritations and resentments slip away, and a sunny spirit
takes their place” (qtd. in Cracroft 17). Hans Christian Anderson wrote, “‘He who takes the
serious only seriously and the humorous only humorously has understood everything only very
poorly’” (qtd. in Cracroft). The ability to see the humor in things is fundamental to our humanity.
While it can be used to emphasize boundaries, while it can cut to the bone, it can also meld tellers
and listeners into one shared community. During this talk, we have reviewed theories describing
the aggressive, hostile purpose of much humor and a theory that shows how the structure of a
joke creates humor, we have looked at the dangers of sexist humor, and we have looked at the
uses of ethnic humor by insiders, by outsiders, and by both to cross group boundaries. We have
also seen how humor is one way of responding to disasters and can be an expression of grief. In
his acceptance speech for the Nobel prize, William Faulkner talks about how literature can help
sustain us. As with other literature, humor, the literature of the common folk, can be “one of the
props, the pillars to help [humankind] endure and prevail.”
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Eco, Umberto. The Name of the Rose. New York: Harvest, 1994.
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Gruner, Charles R. The Game of Humor: A Comprehensive Theory of Why We Laugh. New
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Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan: Parts One and Two. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1958.
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