Friday, January 13, 2012

A.K. Grant on jokes

The 43rd in this occasional series of reprints from Quote Unquote the magazine is from the November 1996 issue: A.K Grant reviews The Penguin Book of New Zealand Jokes, edited by John Barnett and Lesley Kaiser. [Disclaimer: in 1998 I compiled/wrote The JAFA Joke Book, in 2000 The NZ Sports Joke Book, and in 2002 The New Penguin Joke Book and The Puffin New Zealand Joke Book, all for Penguin. It’s harder than it looks.]

John Barnett and Lesley Kaiser “initiate” books and undertake “projects”. Their associate, Brian Schaab (“Shabby”) has been in the police for 28 years, apparently collecting jokes during that time (not while on duty, I trust), enjoys sport and lives in Napier with his wife Jude. Nothing to complain about there. But the book itself should be investigated under the Commerce and Fair Trading Acts.
Most of the jokes included are “a catchment”. There is nothing to relate them to New Zealand apart from the fact that they have at some time or other been told here. At page 12 of their lengthy and extremely boring introduction, Barnett and Kaiser ask themselves, “What does this book say about New Zealand?” The answer is, almost nothing, because most of the jokes are international: the only New Zealand aspect to them is that they have been included in a book misleadingly entitled The Penguin Book Of New Zealand Jokes. A more accurate title would have been The New Zealand Book Of Jokes Assembled For Penguin.
Barnett and Kaiser, in their humour-free, risibility-challenged introduction, make some odd claims. They say, at page 16, “Jokes have particularly flourished in the 20th century, the years since the Second World War having seen their ascendancy”. This would have come as news to the wits associated with the New Yorker in the 20s and 30s or, for that matter, to the Earl of Rochester or Lord Byron.
They say at page 19 that “Jokes are mainly told by men”. This would come as news to the large numbers of women who make excellent jokes about their partners’ inadequacies as lovers.
On page 18 we are told, “Jokes exist within an oral culture, and, though we can present them, as herein, in written form, they’re reliant for success upon delivery, upon the teller of the joke. That is to say, a joke is not just content, but content that’s given life by telling. . .”
Now if that is true, and it would certainly seem to apply to much of the material included in this work, then what is the point of writing these jokes down at all, since without the mitigating and alleviating enhancement of the teller’s personality and style the joke appears, on the printed page, flat, lifeless, often obscene and, worst of all, unfunny? No doubt Penguin will point to vast sales of this book as proof that there is a market for works of this kind. Nevertheless the statement just quoted seems equivalent to a claim in a preface to a cookbook that most of the recipes aren’t very tasty. Which may be correct, but it seems a bit odd to point it out.
More psychobabble on page 20: “There is an element of liberation in the associated physical release of telling a joke that also applies to the hearing of it, that also applies to the sharing of it.” I have given this statement considerable thought, but I still can’t work out what it means. It seems to imply that telling a joke is a bit like having an ejaculation. If that is what the authors mean, they should say so.
If all they mean is that it is fun to tell a joke and fun to listen to one, then they should say that. Particularly as there are all kinds of reasons other than for physical release why jokes are told: to make yourself seem interesting, to fill an awkward gap in a conversation, to make sense of the universe.
And how about this for serious impenetrability: “In jokes the contradictions and tensions of our time and place are deconstructed as they are acknowledged, at the same time as our view of the social word is destabilised, the seriousness of this enterprise being undermined by the laughter that’s produced.”
Anybody who can write a sentence like that wouldn’t recognise a joke if it was rolled very thinly and shoved up their nose. Jokes are innocent, airy little things. They don’t deserve to be jumped up and down on with hobnailed boots like that.
Actually I withdraw that last remark. The best line I ever read about jokes came from a sacked BBC scriptwriter: “Jokes are evil, nasty and subversive. That’s why people like them.” That’s all that needs to be said about jokes.

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