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More on the Nature of Humor


by Izzy Kalman (July 2005)

At my seminars I teach that humor is not positive; it is negative. It is a mirror of human faults. We laugh at people’s stupidity, clumsiness and misery. Compliments will not make people laugh – unless there is an insult embedded in it. Only insults have the potential of being funny. I sometimes challenge people to tell me a joke that doesn’t make anyone look bad.

Sometimes people take me up on the challenge. Usually they’ll tell me a riddle. Many riddles do, in fact, contain an obvious insult, but they don’t always. They are usually based on word-plays, or double-entendres, in which a word has more than one meaning. It took me a while to realize who riddles make fun of. I believe the answer is that it makes fun of the listener. We are asked a question that we know is going to have a stupid answer, meaning an answer that cannot possibly be correct or logical. We respond to the question as though it is valid, then we are hit with a ridiculous answer that is possible because of the second meaning of the word. The answer is usually something we couldn’t possibly think of on our own because it not logical, but the answer is so simple that we feel stupid for not having though of it by ourselves. The riddle-teller therefore has made a fool of us, and we laugh.

But my main concern here is jokes, not riddles. It sometimes takes me a while to figure out what was degrading in the joke. I want to tell you about one that had me stumped, till I realized that practically everything about it was degrading. In essence, I had been searching for a tree, not realizing I was staring at a forest. A Jewish therapist at a recent Anger Control Made Easy seminar in Tampa told me the joke in response to my challenge. This excellent joke is, by the way, quite well known; I had first heard it when I was a child. It goes like this:

A man strikes up a conversation with a mohel. (A mohel is a Jewish scholar who is trained to perform circumcisions, the ritual in which a Jewish male is initiated into the religion by surgical removal of the foreskin of his penis at the age of eight days. Ouch!)

Man: What do you do with the foreskins?

Mohel: I put them to good use.

Man: How?

Mohel: I sew them together and sell them as wallets.

Man: It must take an awful lot of foreskins to make one wallet. Is it really worth the effort?

Mohel: Oh, but these aren’t just ordinary wallets. When you rub one, it turns into a suitcase!

For a while, I feared I was presented with a joke that actually doesn’t make anyone look bad. But then it hit me. All of it is demeaning! There are at least four ways I can think of that this joke puts people down.

1. In the Jewish religion, body parts are considered sacred, to be treated with the utmost respect. Body parts may be disposed of only by burial, giving it the same respect accorded to a complete deceased human body. For a mohel to use foreskins to make wallets would be an absolute outrage. So the joke insults the mohel’s morality and religiosity.

2. The joke subtly makes fun of Jews for being cheap. The mohel doesn’t want the foreskins to go to waste, so he makes some extra money turning them into luggage.

3. It disparages the male sexual organ, the penis. Though it is often the brunt of jokes, the penis is an extremely important and treasured part of the male anatomy, and a wonder of biological engineering as well. However, it seems to have a mind of its own. With a mere rub, it quickly inflates itself and jumps up ready for action, frequently against the will of its owner. My male readers certainly have little difficulty remembering the consternation of adolescence, when we had to hide that embarrassing bulge in our pants. So this joke degrades the male penis by basely portraying it as a mere piece of machinery that retains its ability to grow even when disconnected from the human body.

4. Similar to riddles, it insults the intelligence of the mohel and his questioner by having them believe something that is impossible. Only an idiot could think that a foreskin retains the ability to engorge itself after it’s cut off from the body.

So you won’t think that it is only me who has come up with the crazy idea that humor is insulting, I want to share a quotation I recently came across. It is by that great British writer and philosopher, George Orwell: “The aim of a joke is not to degrade the human being but to remind him that he is already degraded.” Many humorists and comedians understand very well that humor is about making people look bad. It is the mental health professionals, who are supposed to be experts at understanding human nature, who have the hardest time accepting this ‘ugly’ aspect of our nature.

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