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Telling a joke is no laughing matter

From crude humour to silly puns, there’s more to jokes than meets the ear

brunch Updated: Aug 04, 2018 22:30 IST
Rehana Munir
Rehana Munir
Hindustan Times
jokes,what makes a joke,what's so funny
Can an incongruous tea lounge named after these two animals evoke uncontrollable laughter?(Photo Imaging: Parth Garg)

A few years ago, I sat with a big group of family and friends at the heavenly Gajalee at Vile Parle, licking the remnants of Clam Koshimbir off my fingers. Someone remarked we should go get some chai. Draining their Sol Kadhi, another suggested, “Let’s go to Wagh Bakri Tea Lounge across the street,” eliciting a few sniggers for the incongruous name. “Tiger Goat,” I blurted out. Now the table was shaking with laughter. Why, I wondered, did that ordinary translation of a phrase evoke such mirth. “Why’s everyone laughing so much?” I asked, genuinely confused. My younger sister rolled her eyes at me. From the gesture I deduced that probing the cause of laughter kills laughter. But ‘Tiger Goat’ has passed into family lexicon with the meaning: something that’s very obvious.

Get thee to a punnery

Laughter is a tricky business. We laugh when we’re happy, nervous, sad, angry or confused. But I’m more interested in jokes as a laughter trigger. What makes us laugh at certain jokes and not at others? For instance, I have friends who lament my fondness for silly puns. (Is scouring Google maps before an Andheri East meeting a Marol booster? Will PV Sindhu suffer abadminton issues when coach Gopichand retires? Do supercilious cooks use condescend milk? )

I find jokes constructed with Lego blocks of humour tiresome. When it comes to offence, give me South Park any day

A few years ago, while narrating a dream to my therapist, I had a Eureka moment. She said that the three collinear moons I had seen in the dream sky about could be a pun on Munir, alluding to the three sisters, of which I was one. What a thing! This really led me down the rabbit hole. I fell predictably onto the couch of Freud, who’s written a book called The Joke and Its Relation to the Unconscious. I wouldn’t recommend the original text to those looking for quick explication. But suffice it to say that jokes – including wordplay – are part of our brains’ unconscious processes. And that’s how our dreams are full of them.

Humanity against cards

Then there’s the matter of humour and political correctness. Cards Against Humanity has taken the question – “Is it still bigoted if it’s offensive to everyone?” and turned it into a thriving industry. For those unfamiliar with the party game, it asks players to match rude questions to offensive answers, drawing its content from all sorts of taboo material. After playing a few rounds, you figure that the most sexually explicit joke will win. (Frankly, if you’re familiar with the madly inventive carnal acts those cards are talking about, you deserve to win the game.) But my objection to the game is not on ethical grounds. Rather I feel that this fill-in-the-blanks approach to humour peaked with Mad Libs. I find jokes constructed with Lego blocks of humour tiresome. When it comes to offence, give me South Park any day.

What makes us laugh at certain jokes and not at others? Is scouring Google maps before an Andheri East meeting a Marol booster? Will PV Sindhu suffer abadminton issues when coach Gopichand retires? Do supercilious cooks use condescend milk?

Watching Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017) made me think about the laughter question once again. A black comedy with a storyline loaded with issues like gender, sexual orientation and race, it makes you laugh regularly, while questioning what it is that you just laughed about. If you’re laughing at a homophobic joke, for instance, is it an ironic laugh, taking into account the hugely problematic character that Sam Rockwell portrays? Or are you laughing while identifying with his position? Some serious stuff going on here in the guise of laughter.

Beware of boss jokes

Milan Kundera’s The Joke shows us how a joke misunderstood can ruin lives. In one of the book’s strands, the Czech novelist follows the dire consequences of a joke made in a postcard by a young man, Ludvik, to his lover. “Optimism is the opium of mankind! A healthy spirit stinks of stupidity! Long live Trotsky!” Members of his pro-Communist political party see this as an act of subversion. Ludvik is expelled from the party and thrown into military service. Now imagine your WhatsApp chats being intercepted by your boss! Even LinkedIn wouldn’t be able to put you back on your clownish feet.

News from Israel doesn’t often evoke laughter. But novelist David Grossman has come up with quite the definitive novel for our dark times, where stand-up comics often show politicians and citizens the light. In A Horse Walks into a Bar, Dovaleh G is a comedian delivering the performance of a lifetime, headily mixing private and historical material to leave the club audience in all states of perplexity. One minute he’s confessing to a life-threatening illness, the other he’s insulting an audience member, the third he’s narrating a crude joke, the fourth he’s making a political statement. It won the Booker in 2017. That’s Tiger Goat...

From HT Brunch, August 5, 2018

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First Published: Aug 04, 2018 20:54 IST