No Laughing Matter: The Rationale of the Dirty Joke

June 20, 2011 § 2 Comments

No Laughing Matter is an ethnographic collection of thousands upon thousands of off-color, rude and downright nasty jokes; the volume is divided into “clean-dirty” and “dirty-dirties,” distinction Legman halfheartedly draws between jokes intended to nauseate and distress the audience and those which do so incidentally. The book contains nearly two thousand samples, including rape jokes, castration jokes, prostitution jokes, and every kind of joke about every kind of excretion one could possibly imagine. It really is fun for the whole family, boasting subsections entitled “Defiling the Mother,” “Fuck” and “Urinating on Others.”

In his weirdly caustic introduction, G. Legman considers the origins and significance of the aforementioned shitshows and attempts to place the (dirty) joking impulse in the appropriate social context. Taking a page from Freud’s playbook, G. Legman argues that tendentious jokes –i.e. jokes directed at a particular butt, whether an individual or group– originate as “hostile impulses of free-floating aggression in the tellers of jokes” and function primarily as “expression[s] of social and sexual anxieties [the joke tellers] are otherwise unable to absorb or express” (20). In other words, they’re not funny, and they’re not fun (18). As Legman cheerfully explains:

“the whole dramatic recital seems to be taking place inside the Dragon’s guts, and everyone involved is bathed in the same fiery and disgusting dirtiness and wet, slipping and sliding together in the same humorous blood, shit, piss, pus, puke, and slime. Worst of all, as might be expected in the liqueous and nauseous stuffs so often used as subject, there is no firm footing anywhere underneath. One is disgusted and yet one laughs, and one is disgusted with oneself for laughing. Yet, as the whole mud-bath has been entered into under the name of humor and under the mask of jokes and good-fellowship, there can be no end until one does laugh” (19).

Thus, “the laughter which greets the ‘punchline’ of jokes is really just an expression of the anxiety of all concerned over the taboos that are being broken” (21). It sure is a good thing that all humans have a single Freud-approved, universally applicable and therefore highly predictable response to everything that happens ever!

Oh, sorry, was I editorializing? I can’t keep track sometimes– I am large, I contain hostilities. Anyway, on Legman’s view, jokes are more a Rorschach test than a throwaway moment of bullshit between friends, suddenly imbuing a seemingly fun and harmless act with far-reaching social significance, due in large part to Legman’s claim that jokes are a “disguised aggression or verbal assault directed against the listener, who is always really the butt” (20). And what these jokes are matters, since “a person’s favorite joke is the key to that person’s character” (14). That is to say, what one laughs at reveals who (or what) one truly is. But not just “is” in the predicate, i.e. Clintonian sense — is in the nominative, i.e. serious business sense. As in, what you are, at your core, as a human. Per Legman, “Your favorite joke is your psychological signature. The ‘only’ joke you know how to tell, is you” (16). Freud!

One of the more notable aspects of this selection is Legman’s utter rejection of the clear distinction between joke-teller and joke-listener, a position based on his assumption that jokes aren’t created as much as they are repeated. “Since the jokes that are told are really only being repeated from previous listening, in the deepest sense teller and listener are indivisible and identical. The favorite jokes of one are -by and large- the favorite jokes of the other…[and] Only the special favorites are retained, or transmitted very often” (15, his angry italics) — thus likening Legman’s position to one of memetics (and/or spreadability, to use Henry Jenkins’ term). Legman takes this one step farther, arguing that the existence of dirty-dirty jokes speaks to a collective unconscious riddled with shared cultural anxieties and prejudice (assumption: that collectivity/consensus is something that happens in culture, which apparently is a thing, and consequently all people a) have the same anxieties and b) express these same anxieties in similar if not identical ways. -Ed)

If feeder question: OMG OBVI, trolls are very bad men and say all kinds of naughty things. Based on Legman’s analysis, it seems reasonable to conclude that trolls must be the jokes they tell — namely racist, sexist and homophobic. But nay! Because it’s a wee bit more complicated than that. I mean yes, trolling is disturbing, trolling is politically problematic, etc. But it’s not merely racist, sexist, or homophobic. In fact it’s not merely anything. Insert everything I’ve done for the last three years, ending with them Dickwolfs. Course there’s still all that jazz about how it doesn’t matter why something is said, it’s the fact that it’s said…which is the whole crux of the issue and can only be countered with a discussion of overdetermination of meaning and intent.

If stand-alone question: HUGE emphasis on the breakdown between joke teller and joke listener. Am reluctant to make a blanket statement about the -apparent, per Legman- magical kindred connection between teller and listener, since two different people can and frequently do take two different meanings from the same joke, but Legman’s system does give me some places to hang my hat in terms of the repercussions of transgressive humor, and the ways in which joke telling releases whatever thing into the wild despite the teller’s intent (the joke gets passed along & may fall into the “wrong hands,” thus reifying whatever social inequity, even if the teller meant to challenge whatever injustice).


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