How (Some) Jokes Work

Jokes reformulate our thoughts on a subject. The listener resides in the sometimes disquieting space between sense and nonsense, between assumed values and transgressive behavior, shifting constantly in the uncharted territory between them, reconsidering their own boundaries of propriety, wondering whether something is, in fact, funny or offensive, having to ask oneself if deep held moral codes and moorings are, indeed, disputable—at least, not universal and definitive.

[view Tension Displacement Diagram in new window]

James English describes the process as "the displacement of a particular tension or contradiction onto a less threatening field of association" {new window} or "the circumvention of a taboo through indirect representation." [1994: 15-16]. While sometimes this displacement occurs through the story or content of the joke, most often it is enacted through the language and structure of the joke. many jokes rely upon "getting the point" just at the boundaries of the point; jokes side-step the point through a kind of punning, taking the literal and tweeking it, bending it so that we are made precisely aware of what was expected from the vantage point of the unexpected. As listeners we always remain within range of the intended response.

In the space of a joke, we are forced to attend to the uncomfortable disparity between the obvious and the odd {new window}. It is a speculative space—a place of amazement and instability. It's also a place of challenge and dissent. In refusing the predictability of the reasonable, the expected, the obvious—the whole point—we wonder, what is the point anyway? Is it deserving of our trust? How did it come to be taken as fact? Who benefits from our complicity with it? Bordering on, or approximating, the rational is a compelling, albeit subtle, way of questioning the reliability of evidence and the apparatus of belief itself.

Jokes and nonsense are often forms of social commentary that have the notion of ambiguity, at least in part, at their core. Imprecision, innuendo, and mimicry are often indirect forms of objection against definitiveness, purity, and fixity; they challenge canons and masters incumbent upon order.

The power of certain jokes is their ability to evoke a quality of being not quite one's self, of situating a self in an alienated position from a more habituated self. They ask us to be readers of our own cultural masks and to reveal (and revel in) the creative space of unmasking and remasking. They ask that we reclaim the very process of masking as our own. These jokes thus suggest at once criticality, wonder, and the opportunity for metamorphosis.