I recently finished reading Punchlines by Leon Rappaport, a book about ethnic, religious, and racial humor.

Overall, the book was pretty good, but it was short and not very well argued. Supposedly, this book was a defense of ethnic and racial humor, but it was more a description of humor generally, how racial humor works, and its history. There wasn’t that much defense. For example, at one point, Rappaport writes:

So much the less would it be possible to prohibit ethnic humor in our society. The fallback argument is that it should at least be banned from TV, but that is also not likely, because the market rules: as long as substantial audiences enjoy it, it will be programmed.

Of course, that is what is at issue: should we listen to the market about jokes that might offend racial groups. This is a minor point and Rappaport’s main argument does not rest on it, but I think it shows the quickness with which he tries to establish normative conclusions (i.e. what we should do about ethnic humor).

For someone like me the history and the raw psychological data about humor were very interesting. The author mentions the connection between humor and loneliness several times, and this resonated with me given that I like to be humorous and tell jokes, but sometimes feel like joke telling can be isolating and imprisoning, demoting one to the role of permanent court jester. Anecdotally, he cites Robin Williams’ practice of sometimes going into the audience and heckling his own act. This represents the kind of self-contained dialogue that humor can become; it grows out of the obsessive and internal discussion the comedian has with himself, very similar to intellectual predilections. This is closely related to Rapapport’s observation that most comedians never got attention as kids and so plausibly used jokes as a way to enter into a society that they were ill-equipped to engage with in other ways. Or further, that  hugely disproportionate numbers of comedians are black or jewish; outsiders in more ways than one: Jack Benny, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, Woody Allen, Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy. Exceptions are Robin Williams and Steve Martin.

But still, the the book nicely identifies the fact that humor is changing a lot as our society moves toward more equality for all religious and ethnic groups. Richard Pryor and Jack Benny, two of the early pioneers in cynical, gritty, in-your-face humor, both did not finish high school due to rebelliousness and were discharged from the military. In short, they were against the establishment in a big way. But later comedians did go to college and used college opportunities to further their career. What this shows is that society became much less authoritarian after the 70s and even more importantly, less trusting in institutions in general. Comedy these days is very cynical, but as society becomes more egalitarian, I expect jokes to become even more wittily destructive of established values. But as racial and ethnic targets become less palatable and more importantly, less funny, what will we attack next and where will humor go? My prediction is that humor will move to an even higher level of generality and will attack even more fundamental pillars of society including, capitalism, democracy, politeness, the family, love and marriage, and the question of human life as such. Just one final, striking example of how far humor has come, listen to this double entendre joke told by Bob Hope, which involved a play on the accepted notion (at the time) that pawn shops had 3 globe-type objects above their doors.

My girlfriend and I went to a pawnshop and she kissed me under the balls.

Hope had to issue a PUBLIC APOLOGY for this joke. Clearly, our collective innocence has been lost.

One last thing that really provoked attention from me, was that ethnic hatred or conflict does not always generate ethnic humor. Apparently, there are not many ethnic jokes that Israelis come up with about Palestinians, even though the hatred between these groups is very intense. I’m not sure what explains this. Maybe the author is right that ethnic jokes are a type of social play that is generally harmless, and makes light of stereotypes and misconceptions by holding them up to humorous scrutiny.


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