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Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes by Jim Holt

Jim Holt's "witty and delightful essay" looks at the history and philosophy of humor in an attempt to answer the questions, "What's so funny?" and "Why am I laughing?".

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes by Jim Holt (Norton, $15.95)

Plato and Aristotle had a low opinion of humor. The Greeks believed that laughter resulted from a sudden surge in one’s sense of superiority, that it was derisive at its core. Contemporary research confirms that theory to a degree. It explains the research chimp that urinates on his trainer’s shoulders and then uses sign language to indicate “funny.” But what about the chimp who tries to amuse its minders by calling a purse a “shoe” and then putting it on her foot, asks science writer Jim Holt. And what explains the popularity of puns? Clearly, we all have the capacity to laugh without putting someone else down.

Holt isn’t trying to sell you a better theory about laughter, said Mary Beard in The New York Review of Books. A self-proclaimed collector of jokes, he instead spends many of the 141 pages of his “quite funny” new volume testing the theories of others and finding them “interesting but wanting.” He allows that Freud’s “relief theory” at least addressed the body’s response to humor: The godfather of psychotherapy posited that guffaws harmlessly release forbidden impulses such as aggression, lust, and the urge for play. Holt deems the “incongruity theory” more useful still. An unexpected juxtaposition of meanings does seem to underlie most jokes, after all, though that hardly explains why pleasure and “a bout of chest heaving” is often the result.

Though Holt’s “witty and delightful essay” may not resolve many questions, said Simon Blackburn in The New York Sun, it proves that a sharp writer “can reflect profitably on what some would regard” as the lower instincts of human nature. Holt “is an equal-opportunity anthologist,” said Stefan Kanfer in City Journal. His compendium of ethnic jokes, dirty stories, Borscht Belt bits, and medieval one-liners even includes a gag about gags: “A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘What is this, a joke?’” Still, “the biggest laugh in this collection is its price tag.” You can breeze through the whole thing while standing in line at a bookstore. If you spend $16 to bring it home, “the joke’s on you.”

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