Jim Holt — author "Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes" — reacts to the story of Judge Alex Kozinski, his personal (but on-line) porn, and his wife's defense of it ("Alex is not into porn — he is into funny — and sometimes funny has a sexual character.")
The very ability to enjoy such humor means that you must be investing a good deal of energy in keeping your animal side in check. You are at least trying to be civilized. A dirty joke is an uprising against the bourgeois morality that enslaves most of us most of the time (and a good thing too). We can rejoice in its defeat only because that defeat is brief and inconsequential. In fact, our laughter itself brings the little uprising to an end. As most of us have discovered, laughter's a pretty strong anti-aphrodisiac.Holt goes on to discuss sex humor in ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance, and Shakespeare. (For some reason, there
He quotes George Orwell:
"The modern emphasis on what is called 'clean fun' is really the symptom of a general unwillingness to touch upon any serious or controversial subject."So should we be suspicious of people who don't laugh at sexual humor?
There are two other classic theories of humor in competition with his. One of them is the "superiority theory," propounded in various forms by Plato, Thomas Hobbes and Henri Bergson, which says that laughter is a way of crowing victoriously over the humiliation of others. This theory works well at explaining the appeal of ethnic and racial jokes, of jokes about gays and drunkards and henpecked husbands and lawyers and women ("Why do women wear perfume and makeup?" goes a classic of this genre. "Because they're smelly and ugly.") The superiority theory sees mockery, hostility and aggression at the root of all humor. Morally speaking, it puts sexual humor in a pretty bad light, making it tantamount to verbal rape."Verbal rape" sounds bad, but don't forget that comedians love to say "I killed" when they made people laugh. So that would be verbal murder.
I think some mockery, hostility and (verbal) aggression is a good thing. And it's funny. The real question is who are your targets? In other words, what ideas are you expressing? You deserve to be judged for that, not the mocking aggression per se. Judged... and then, perhaps, let off the hook. Because you were joking.
The other time-honored view of humor has a rather sweeter flavor, and a more intellectual one. It is the "incongruity theory," versions of which were held by Blaise Pascal, Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, which says that we laugh when the decorous suddenly dissolves into the absurd..... One of the images on the Kozinski website that the judge said he planned to delete -- it was "degrading," he said, "and just gross" -- was a depiction of women as cows. That's pure superiority theory, and as obscene as it is banal. But take this joke, reputedly a favorite of George H.W. Bush: "How do you titillate an ocelot? You oscillate its tits a lot." Ostensibly, it falls into the category of raunch, with its use of the not-ready-for-prime-time word for breasts and its winking allusion to bestiality. But it is essentially sheer nonsense, a sonic jeu d'esprit.That reminds me, nobody supplied the comic answer to the George Carlin question I typed up for you last night (when I was watching hours of the HBO Carlin marathon). Carlin has a nice mix of wordplay and sex, and sometimes it's very funny just because the expected wordplay isn't there at all and it's just flatly sexual. But that the dissolution into the absurd that Blaise, Manny, and Artie were talking about, right?