Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters 
by Ted Cohen.
Chicago, 99 pp., £10.50, November 1999, 0 226 11230 6
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As there’s nothing you can do to a joke to make it funny, except tell it well, the telling of jokes can be a testing time for everyone involved. And once they’ve been told we rarely have conversations about whether or not they have worked. Good art makes us think and talk and write; good jokes just amuse us. Either we get them or we don’t; and when jokes are interpreted they begin to sound like bad jokes. In fact, when it comes to jokes, explanation and understanding are at odds with each other. If you get the joke you can explain it, but explaining a joke rarely makes anyone happy (you couldn’t have a book called ‘The Best Jokes Explained’). So the idea of someone being serious about jokes – wanting something from jokes besides what is patently on offer – is not, in the ordinary way of things, very enticing.

The joke-theorist – it is significantly difficult to know what to call such a person – has to believe that he can compete with the joke; that he can give us something as good, if not better. He has to believe that there is something we would rather do than laugh. One of the many triumphs of Ted Cohen’s Jokes – apart from the not incidental fact that the jokes are so good that he doesn’t bother to compete with them – is that it never tries to sound more profound than the jokes it tells. Cohen’s amazement that there are such things as jokes – ‘the fact that there is a kind of story meant to make us laugh’ – and that they can work so spectacularly, and fail so dismally, has fired him to write a deliberately small-scale book on many subjects that are liable to make people think big. ‘One of the more ponderous and depressing features of large-scale moral theories,’ he writes, ‘is that they tell you what makes things right or wrong, good or bad, and then leave it to you to take a case about whose morality you feel strongly and try to outfit it with the theories’ sanctioned reasons.’ It is fitting that a book which is so finely eloquent about Jewish jokes should prefer untailored truths. Cohen gives us such a keen – and daunting – sense of what it is for a joke to misfire, implicitly likening it to what happens when a theory gets too greedy in its explanations (‘large-scale’), that he makes you feel he is doing an unusual kind of philosophy. As though he has managed to turn J.L. Austin into one of the Marx Brothers.

The philosopher on jokes, and indeed the jokey philosopher, has to be mindful of the fact that the joke is always on someone. To write with the wrong kind of seriousness about jokes – or the wrong kind of unseriousness – is unlikely to inspire confidence in a reader who may already feel compromised by the fact that he is reading such a book: is he an earnest saddie, one of those people who needs an explanation for everything, and particularly his pleasure? Books that explain poems, or dreams, or even sex can add to our pleasure in these things; but when it comes to humour, those who can, do. Yet as Cohen knows, with the cunning and sureness of tone that is everywhere in this book, the misgivings we have about doing anything with jokes other than telling them is part of their appeal. Unlike poems and dreams and sex, jokes virtually instruct us not to talk about them: all we have to do is perform them properly (i.e. very well) and for that short time they give us the life we want. Cohen wants us to be intrigued by his subject but not suspicious, susceptible but not naive. Jokes, in other words, tells us many things about jokes, and jokes, in appropriately bold type and sensibly categorised, take up over a third of Cohen’s text. It also tells us many remarkable things about intimacy, about explanation, understanding and belief, about Jews and, more or less inadvertently, about philosophers, and what Cohen thinks they should be doing with our time.

‘A philosopher,’ he writes ruefully in the Introduction, ‘has to say at least a few theoretical words. But I will attempt nothing global or universal; there will be no comprehensive theory of jokes or their purpose, not only because I have no such theory, but also because I believe there could be no such theory.’ If this makes us wonder what theoretical words are as opposed, say, to theories, it also reminds us how much philosophers in the past believed that size matters. That the reach of a theory is more a matter of what it reaches in us than of the amount of ground covered (the globe, the universe) is one of the things Cohen uses jokes to show us. Jokes, in his words, are ‘devices for inducing intimacy’; and technology notwithstanding, there is no such thing as global, let alone universal intimacy. It has been the absurd fate, Cohen implies, of large-scale comprehensive theory to produce ever more inclusive forms of explanation through ever greater denials of difference. The old-style philosophical quest for Universals is a quest for a world without too many differences; and that world is, of course, no laughing matter.

Fortunately Cohen’s dismissal of comprehensive theory is not merely, as it usually is, an opportunity to be grand in a different manner. Reading Jokes makes you feel that being genial is the most profound thing we ever do – which is something jokes also make us feel – and that doing philosophy is as natural as being amused. Cohen, in other words, performs in this book what he promotes; jokes, in his account, are one of the best forms language takes, and so can show us what it might be that we want language to do for us, and what kind of calamity it is when it fails us, when we fail at it (the excruciating vulnerability of the bad comic). But to pull this off without portentousness – or the embarrassment about portentousness that can be worse – Cohen has to tell funny stories and make us think about them, without making the wrong kind of meal of it. ‘The thing about German food is that no matter how much you eat, an hour later you’re hungry for power.’ The problem here is obvious and Cohen isn’t interested in resolving it. ‘If it offends one to have Germans represented in this way,’ he comments, ‘then the amusement may be lost altogether.’ But it may not be, and the reason we are amused may be rather more interesting than the joke’s overt racism. That seemingly superfluous ‘altogether’ notes how much there is in amusement, and what there is to lose when one loses it. ‘It is a general thesis of mine,’ Cohen writes, ‘that a deep satisfaction in successful joke transactions is the sense held mutually by teller and hearer that they are joined in feeling.’ And to be joined in feeling is different from being joined in belief, or joined in business (the consequences, for one thing, are less predictable). If a joke, when it’s successful, is a transaction – an action performed, and a deal done – it may be, by the same token, a communal act – the closest some of us ever get to a so-called sense of community. Jokes tap into those affinities and recognitions between people that seem to reveal something essential about themselves, or at any rate something they can’t help but value. It’s this that makes humour akin to sexual desire, and makes jokes seem like safe sex. Modern people who experience themselves, for whatever reason, as ‘over-controlled’ are more likely to value what seems to be involuntary, like amusement and sexual desire.

Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious is as tentative a title, in its own way, as Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. But in its aspiration to be a comprehensive theory, Freud’s book is by definition far more ambitious (as well as being, at the same time, a book about ambition, and about jokes as a form of ambition). But Cohen’s guarded relationship to Freud – and his covert ambition to outwit him by doubting not merely his theory, but theory-making in general – is one of the many subtle pleasures of this book. (Bergson and Meredith wrote books on humour, but Freud is the only one to have attempted a kind of universal theory.) It is the amusement of influence rather than the anxiety that he is, perhaps unsurprisingly, given to. So he offers as an example of what he calls the ‘slightly more intricate ... mildly hermetic joke’:

Early one morning a man awoke in a state of terrible anxiety because of the dream he had been having. He immediately called his psychiatrist, and after making a special plea because of his distress he was granted an appointment that morning even though it was not the day for seeing his psychiatrist. When he arrived in the doctor’s office he said: ‘I had the most awful dream you can imagine. In it I raped my mother, killed my wife, and seduced my daughter, and more things worse than those. I woke up shaking and sweating, and I called you immediately. Then I had a quick piece of toast and some coffee, and ran down here to see you.’

  ‘What?’ said the psychiatrist. ‘You call that a breakfast?’

Ostensibly a joke about Jewish parents, the joke is also about – on – people who have what Cohen calls ‘comprehensive theories’ and people who distrust these people. It works because the audience takes it for granted that the psychiatrist is a man with such a theory. As though one thing the joke is saying is: only people who have such theories can surprise us like this. This is why the joke suits Cohen’s book, though it would be against the grain of the book – which is always deadpan in its insinuations – to say this. Cohen prefers jokes that don’t over-protect their tellers.

A comprehensive theory, like Freud’s – all jokes are sexual, all jokes are artefacts that make the unacceptable sufficiently pleasurable – is implicitly amusing for Cohen because it offers exactly the kind of predictability that good jokes trade on (‘An exhibitionist was thinking of retiring, but he decided to stick it out for one more year’). People with theories like Freud’s allow us to expect something of them and allow us not to take that too seriously. Jokes for Cohen constitute a sense of community simply by relying on ‘an implicit acknowledgment of a shared background ... this is the foundation of the intimacy that will develop if your joke succeeds.’ By taking for granted what they depend on, good jokes confirm the existence of this shared background. We only get the joke because in some sense we are in the world it comes from. If your joke misfires, or you don’t get the joke, then you have either fallen out of the world or you are, if only momentarily, in the wrong one. ‘I urge you to agree,’ Cohen writes (his urgencies are mercifully few and far between), ‘that this estrangement is very important indeed, and that it can represent a threat to one’s conception of one’s own humanity.’ Jokes are always, however secretly, poignant because they express our longing not to be too strange to each other, or to ourselves; not to be too determinedly unique. So on Cohen’s unpleading account jokes are a kind of informal politics, one of the unusually successful forms of group life (a totalitarian state is a state of canned laughter).

When we laugh at the same thing, that is a very special occasion. It is already noteworthy that we laugh at all, at anything, and that we laugh all alone. That we do it together is the satisfaction of a deep human longing, the realisation of a desperate hope. It is the hope that we are enough like one another to sense one another, to be able to live together.

It is as though the joke does with relative ease and economy something we usually do with a great deal of resistance and effort: that is, identify with each other. And yet, as Cohen knows, this is also what makes jokes so disturbing; racism, sexism, nationalism, not to mention comprehensive theories, all thrive on a currency of jokes. But for Cohen the point to take seriously, so to speak, is that we are amused; that when it comes to humour – and, of course, sex – our preferences don’t always accord with our principles. And that that might tell us something more useful than the forlorn (and often vicious) attempts to shame us out of our prejudices. Cohen’s motto about all this is unsurprisingly pragmatic. ‘Try remaking the world so that such jokes will have no place, will not arise. But do not deny that they are funny.’ Because no theory of joking can get round the fact that jokes are often cruel, philosophical thoughts on joking matters are always, whatever else they are (or want to be), philosophical thoughts on cruelty. When jokes are not charmed verbal puzzles – ‘What do Alexander the Great and Winnie the Pooh have in common? They have the same middle name’ – they are stories about humiliation. Cohen is at his best about jokes that make a mockery of the idea of innocence. Indeed if this book is a critique of anything it is a critique of the vagaries (and vagueries) of wilful innocence and, by extension, of many versions of political correctness.

Like a number of philosophers before him Cohen clearly wants to make philosophy more worldly, or even more vulgar. And jokes might be just the thing to stop philosophy turning into a campus novel. (His footnotes alone are a radical countercultural statement.) Something, anyway, has made Cohen a bit frantic and thus prompted him to write his own genre of confession-cum-jeremiad, but without the grandiloquence that usually attaches to these things. Cohen clearly doesn’t want all theory to aspire to the condition of autobiography; he just wants to get us to worry about the right things:

It is one thing to worry over a version of 18th-century scepticism, and wonder whether green looks green to you the way it does to me, and what it would mean to inhabit a world in which we did not experience green the same way, and what it means that we seemingly do inhabit a world in which we can’t be ‘sure’ that we see green together. It is quite another thing to wonder what the world would be like for me if I never found the same things funny that you or anyone else find funny. I personally have no worries on account of the problem about green, but I worry and feel stricken every time one of my jokes does not reach you.

It is the way the ‘it’s’ gradually turn into the ‘I’s’ that is artful about this; it is the ‘I personally’ that Cohen wants to get back into philosophy but without too much of the sentimentality and self-importance that such I’s usually collect around themselves these days. Though Cohen doesn’t say this in so many words, a joke that fails is a form of madness. If you want to know what scepticism feels like, if you want to feel it really kick in, tell your favourite jokes to people who don’t get them. The first few times this happens you can blame the audience; but imagine never finding a single person who smiled. That would be scepticism red in tooth and claw. Cohen’s choice of the Biblical ‘stricken’ stands out in this context – and is also a clue to some of his more complicated affinities.

Not finding the same things funny that you or anyone else finds funny is, of course, a common immigrant experience. What Cohen intimates in this book is that the link between ‘scepticism’, as philosophers see it, and what all sorts of people call ‘assimilation’ may be of more than academic interest. Because at its most tendentious – and jokes are always that – Jokes is about Jewishness. Not about Jews as chosen joke-tellers of exemplary jokes; but rather what Jews have used jokes to do. Cohen finds a ‘specifically Jewish sanction for humour’ within the traditions of Judaism itself. ‘Laughter,’ he writes, ‘may be heard as the echo of faith’ – and it is echoes of faith that most religions are after.

What he doesn’t find, though, and this is of a piece with the argument of the book, is any discernible essence of Jewishness; anymore than he finds an essence of joking. ‘Of course there are jokes that are recognisibly Jewish,’ he writes. ‘And of course one cannot say just what the Jewishness in these jokes is.’ And of course, the fact that we can be convinced by recognitions that we are unable to describe is itself a philosophical knot. Cohen claims a Biblical, ‘even Talmudic’ sanction for this Jewish humour he knows to be a kind of common knowledge while not being available in the forms knowledge is commonly supposed to take. The jokes this tradition ‘underwrites’, he writes in the language of analytic philosophy, ‘may belong to a class that has necessary and sufficient conditions, but I have too much heart to attempt to formulate them.’ Though many people, I imagine (and I’m sure Cohen imagines), find this a heartening claim, it wouldn’t have cut much ice with the Vienna Circle. But anyone who gets the joke – who senses what Cohen means by ‘heart’; who likes the way he writes, whether they want to or not – will prefer his inclination to ‘characterise’ rather than formulate. (It is the difference, broadly speaking, between a diagnostic manual and a good novel.)

At this point in the argument, Cohen retells five really funny Jewish jokes. Each one ‘displays a crazy logic ... an insane rationality, a logical rigour gone over the edge’. Just as Freud’s psychoanalysis was the double of Logical Positivism, the Jewish jokes that Cohen tells are close to the heart of his chosen profession. ‘Logically speaking’, he writes, knowing the phrase is virtually a contradiction in terms, all these jokes ‘incorporate implausibilities, absurdities and downright contradictions. What does it mean that one laughs at such a thing?’

Rather than a ‘logical rigour gone over the edge’ it seems, in Cohen’s account, that logical rigour is what you come up with after you’ve gone over the edge. Joking, for Cohen, is a cure – or as close as we are going to get to a cure – through wholehearted acknowledgment of ‘the incomprehensible’. ‘What is the most incomprehensible thing you know?’ he asks, and wants us to ask; not so that we can be starry-eyed with wonder, or stupefied with terror, but so that we can acquire something which he believes the Hebrew Bible offers: a ‘conception of decency in which the fully human, fully acceptable response to the mystification of the world is a laughing acceptance, a kind of spiritual embrace’. What Cohen doesn’t tell us, and it does seem rather important in the circumstances, is whether in his view it is fully human to believe in the God of the Hebrew Bible. A laughing acceptance is sufficiently equivocal not to be unduly awed; and a mystification is not a mystery that one can prostrate oneself before. But ‘a kind of spiritual embrace’ has a jarring piety that is sufficiently at odds with the rest of the book to make one wonder who the joke is on.

Perhaps Cohen believes that the mystification of the world was perpetrated as some kind of joke by God; and that ‘kind of spiritual embrace’ is a calculated red rag. Some people might wonder, for example, in their logical way, how many kinds of these embraces there are and, indeed, what exactly a spiritual embrace is. Whether Cohen is veering away from or veering towards a kind of religiosity here – or that secular form of religiosity called sincerity – this is a strange moment in the book. But then the book is written, like much of the most interesting contemporary philosophy, in the crossfire between analytic philosophy and theology. And in this now traditional drama, this antagonism of languages, it is not clear what constitutes the return of the repressed. The sacred certainly doesn’t seem to be a candidate. ‘I am scarcely the first to feel,’ Cohen writes with perhaps calculated ambiguity, ‘a sacred twinge in someone’s laughter.’ The varieties of twinge are legion.

Cohen’s two points, about ‘a kind of Jewish style’ and the ‘abiding characteristic of at least some Jewish humour’, are entirely plausible, after such droll caution. That there is a Talmudic ‘fascination with language and logic’, and that Jewish humour has ‘often been the humour of outsiders’ (‘often’ is doing quite a lot of work here) makes the good sense Cohen wants it to. And the connection he makes is at once incisive and straightforward. ‘When one has this tradition of incessant questioning and criticising,’ he writes, ‘then when one finds oneself an outsider, one will deploy these techniques of criticising and questioning when examining what is inside.’ It may also be true, of course, that the aim of incessant questioning is to keep one outside: that idealising the critical spirit keeps at bay the fears associated with being an insider. Specialness is hard work; and it is the virtue of Cohen’s book to see jokes as a way of negotiating the anxieties of privilege, and especially the dire privilege of being discriminated against.

That we are capable of being amused is the really telling thing for Cohen. Everything after that, is after that. ‘I insist that you not let your conviction that a joke is in bad taste, or downright immoral blind you to whether you find it funny.’ This is not, of course, worlds away – though Cohen doesn’t say so, and can’t really say so because Freud has the say-so on this – from always allowing oneself to notice what one happens to be sexually aroused by. But then Cohen is not fashionably committed to the (theoretical) wonders of blindness. What he wants us to see is that what looks as if it could lead us into moral havoc may be the only thing that will give us heart.

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Vol. 22 No. 7 · 30 March 2000

I thought you’d be inundated with letters correcting the psychiatrist joke which Adam Phillips quotes from Ted Cohen’s book (LRB, 17 February). In Cohen’s version, you remember, the patient has phoned the shrink about a dream in which he has committed every sex-crime in the Freudian calendar: ‘I rang you as soon as I’d had breakfast.’ ‘What did you have?’ ‘Just coffee and toast.’ ‘You call that a breakfast?’ The point, however, is that the patient has phoned the shrink and said: ‘I dreamt you were my mother.’

Stephen Sedley
London WC1

Vol. 22 No. 8 · 13 April 2000

I suspect a certain crossing of wires in Stephen Sedley’s correction of the psychiatrist joke as quoted by Adam Phillips from Ted Cohen’s book (Letters, 30 March). The Cohen version – patient confesses to innumerable sex crimes, psychiatrist is concerned only with what he had for breakfast – is clearly a variant of the ‘Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?’ gag. Sedley’s is the version I know, but he underplays the subtle point that the mother in question is Jewish and that the psychiatrist’s reply isn’t ‘You call that a breakfast?’, but the much funnier ‘That you call a breakfast?’ Rhythm matters in jokes.

Alan Saunders

Vol. 22 No. 9 · 27 April 2000

The point, pace Alan Saunders (Letters, 13 April), is that the shrink is Jewish. But to give him the punchline ‘That you call a breakfast’ is to make him a Yiddish speaker. That’s where the syntax comes from. it’s not, or not just, a question of rhythm. As a Yiddish speaker, however, he’d be more likely to say: ‘This’ – dus – ‘you call a breakfast.’

Stephen Sedley
London WC1

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