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Archive for August, 2010

I’ve taken a break from the blog for the past month or so – hope you all didn’t leave me. We’ve had a great summer – proved by my lack of productivity. It’s good to be back.

I was talking with a good friend and he mentioned that his father was always sending him jokes over the Internet. I nodded – it’s a common practice today. “What’s weird,” he said, “is that it used to be that whenever I talked to my dad, he always had a joke to tell me. Now he never tells me any. He says he can’t remember them.”

I don’t think it’s just old age – I think it’s the nature of digital memory and the way we relate to each other. I remember a discussion I had with a young accountant on airplane. When I told him I was a storyteller he shook his head. “I can’t even remember a joke, ” he said. He, too, noted that he gets hundreds of jokes over the Internet, but can’t remember any of them.

And how many people don’t tell jokes because they say, “I just can’t tell a joke”?

This all got me thinking about the nature and function of jokes. Jokes are the grease in oral conversation, and seem to be a bit of a dying art form. They are, in fact, something you have to practice a little, and they are less common than they were a decade or two ago.

The problem with jokes on the Internet is the assumption that the joke’s main function is to make us laugh wherever we are, even when we’re alone staring at a screen.

That’s wrong, I think.

Jokes are, mainly, about relationships and the social setting. A joke read alone on a computer has little social function. It’s only in the company of people that they serve a purpose.

Telling jokes bear great relationship to the telling of stories. What are jokes for, anyway? Here’s three things:

First, jokes are a mid-point between a greeting and a conversation. Because they are structured, they are little set pieces in which the teller and listener get to play more formal roles – there’s less at stake, since nothing deep is being required. The conversation is going to go deeper, hopefully, but jokes serve as a way to spend time before the conversation goes to another level. They’re like talking about the weather and sports. We can say that they’re meaningless, but those placeholders have a function in conversation.

Second – jokes define the group we belong to (even if it’s as broad as the human race). Knowing the right joke to tell is critical – it shows a sensitivity to the setting and the people. We’ve all been in a place with a group of people where someone told the wrong joke. Oh boy, I’ve done it myself. My wife rolls her eyes. There’s a stony silence. Whoops. The joke teller is making an estimation of what the group is, and then telling a joke that helps to define that group. A joke says “You’re like me – you’ll think this is funny.” So men tell jokes they wouldn’t tell in groups with women, and vice versa. Teachers tell jokes about teaching and students, accountants tell jokes about accounting (if they can remember them). Republicans, Democrats. You get the idea. When you tell a joke to someone and it works, you’ve established a connection that says, “We have this kind of humor, we think this way.” In that way, it’s a deepening of a bond – more so than talking about the rain last night. And if you miscalculate, you drive a division between yourself and the listener. A joke is a little bit of a risk, too.

Third – jokes do make us laugh, but it’s not just laughter for laughter’s sake. Laughter drops our defenses and makes us more open to the people we’re with. Laughter and humor are important steps in a relationship, even if it’s with a person you meet on a plane or train, or standing in line. Jokes are a way of breaking down walls.

So when I hear my friend say that his father, a life-long joke teller just sends jokes and doesn’t tell them, I know something’s being lost.

And as for those who say they can’t tell a joke – well, some people have a better sense of timing and all, but mostly it just comes from doing it. A joke is rarely well told the first time – around the seventh or eighth try, it gets into shape. Saying you can’t tell a joke is a little like saying you can’t sing. If you don’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.

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