trying to explain jokes


Kurt Vonnegut called jokes mousetraps. This metaphor fits into a traditional conception of humor as a form of violence. (Freud theorized that humor is an act of aggression.) Much of the language of comedy is hostile. We say of funny people that they kill us or slay us. A comic will say that a joke killed, which is the opposite of bombed. We say of wit that it is either dull or sharp, and a sharp wit might be called rapier. Dull humor clubs us over the head or even bludgeons us. We describe wit as mordant and sardonic. The root of mordant is the Latin mordere (“to bite”), and the root of sardonic is the Greek sardonios, referring to a plant on the island of Sardinia that (according to legend), when ingested, makes you laugh so hard you die. By comparison, Vonnegut’s mousetrap is fairly innocuous, though illuminating. To be certain, there is an element in joke-telling of entrapment by lure, and there is a sense that the receiver (the victim) walks into the joke, following desires or expectations toward the punch line. As many jokes work by swift and precise reversal (of expectation or logic), you could call the very form of the joke cunning and aggressive. Punch lines—they’re called punch lines—are often short and sharp. They are brutal in form if not content. If the receiver of the joke does not feel punched, he might feel as if he has been blindsided or as if he has suffered a kind of logical whiplash. Vonnegut, though, wasn’t talking explicitly about the violence of joke-telling. He was talking about the craft of joke-telling, the mechanism of the joke. The joker sets the trap—just as there is potential energy stored in a compressed spring, there is tension in the joke’s setup—then springs it. The punch line snaps, harnessing and releasing the joke’s energy.

more from Chris Bachelder at The Believer here.