As this book points out, the theory of humour can be boring, because humour is interesting. Just as art is interesting but the theory of art is boring; and law is boring, but the theory of law is interesting.
Anyway, despite being repetititious in spots and containing paragraphs that go on for way too long, there are some worthwile things in it, such as the below.
On Gershon Legman (1977-1999), one of the great joke collectors.
(35-36) Legman spent three and a half decades collecting the jokes in these volumes - transcribing some sixty thousand variants on index cards, arranging them by type and motif, and tracing them from country to country to culture, back to the time of Poggio (Bracciolini) (1380-1459) and beyond. They were culled not only from written sources but also from the field: parlor, beer joint, bedroom, and public lavatory. (Many of the jokes are tagged by year and place of discovery: "Idaho 1932," Penna. 1949")
The result was, by his own account, a vast "decorative showcase" of anxiety, repression, and neurosis, a magnum opus written "almost as often in tears as in laughter." What drove him to this singular labor? According to one friend, he saw himself "as the keeper of the deepest subcellar in the burning Alexandria Library of the age; the subcellar of our secret desires, which no-one else was raising so much as a finger to preserve." But Legman must have suspected that he also had a subconscious stake in his massive dirty-joke project. As a lay analyst he believed that "jokes are essentially an unveiling of the joke-teller's own neuroses and compulsions, and his guilts about these. "This is a man, after all, whose unpublished autobiography bears the title "Peregrine Penis."
On Nat Schmulovitz (1889-1966), who was neither particularly humorous nor particularly neurotic. He is most famous for being the lawyer who successfully defended Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in his murder trial. But he was also a noteworthy joke collector.
(40-41) Schmulovitz was a tireless advocate of the power of jokes, which he called "the small change of history." In a speech before the judges of the Ninth Judicial Circuit, "Liberty, Laughter and the Law," he spoke ringingly of how jokes have detected and exposed the imposter and have saved man from the oppression of false leaders." The enormous archive of printed drollery that he bequeathed to the San Francisco Public Library was meant to stand as a testament to his conviction that, "without humour, we are doomed."
On Alan Dundes (1934-2005), the "joke professor" of Berkeley and how he was influenced by Sigmund Freud.
(45-46) Freud himself was an industrious collector of Jewish jokes and considered them deeply significant. Although Freud's collection was most likely destroyed in one of his periodic manuscript-burning sessions, some two hundred jokes, tales, puns and riddles appear in his 1905 book Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Dundes was greatly influenced by this seminal work, which likens jokes to dreams. (Both involve the condensation and displacement of meanings, the representation of things by their opposites, the triumph of fallacy over logic - all to outwit the inner censor.)
"Some people believe that jokes and nursery rhymes and fairy tales are just harmless little stories that don't mean anything," Dundes told me."But they're not meaningless. And they're not necessarily harmless, either."
Answering the question of where jokes come from.
(48-49) "There are two classic theories about the origin of jokes," Dundes said. "One is that they come from stockbrokers, who have time on their hands between sales and a communication network to send jokes around. The other theory is that they are made up by prisoners, who have a lot of spare time and a captive audience." He added, "Lately, these two theories have merged."
On why people on the Internet are not aware that the jokes they trade in are hundreds and sometimes even thousands of years old
(50) Folklorists are fond of the idea that jokes don't get invented, they evolve. As Legman put it, "Nobody ever tells jokes for the first time." Really new jokes, especially of the coarser variety, are supposed to be a rarity. While the claim may be exaggerated, there is more truth to it than one might think.
The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) comparing comedy to sex
(66) The objective in sexual congress is to elicit involuntary noisemaking from your partner - which is precisely the objective of humor, even if the nature of the noisemaking is a bit different.
On why some people are reluctant to analyse the science of humour
(67-68) There are several reasons why philosophers might be reluctant to take up the problem of humor. First there is the general principle that the more interesting x is, the less interesting the philosophy of x tends to be, and conversely. (Art is interesting, but the philosophy of art is mostly boring; law is boring, the philosophy of law is pretty interesting.)
Then there is the feeling that the secret of something as precious as laughter should not be pried into. Finally, there is the fear that the analysis of amusement is likely to be unamusing - or worse, unintenionally amusing.
On Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) making a comparison between jokes and dreams
(70) In both jokes and dreams, Freud observed, meanings are condensed and displaced, things are represented indirectly or by their opposites, fallacious reasoning trumps logic. Jokes often arise involuntarily, like dreams, and tend to be swiftly forgotten.
From these similarities Freud inferred that jokes and dreams share a common origin in the unconscious. Both are essentially means of outwitting our inner "censor." Yet there is a critical difference, Freud insisted.
Jokes are meant to be understood; indeed, this is crucial to their success. The meaning of a dream, by contrast, eludes even the dreamer. It is little wonder that one's dreams are utterly uninteresting to other people (except, perhaps, one's analyst). In a sense, a dream is a failed joke.
On the "incongruity theory" of humour
(83) The "incongruity theory," held by Pascal, Kant, and Schopenhauer, says that humor arises when the decorous and logical abruptly dissolves into the low and absurd. "Do you believe in clubs for small children?" W.C. Fields is asked. "Only when kindness fails," he replies.
According to the "relief theory," of humour, the incongruity theory is incomplete. According to the relief theory, laughter is a liberation from inhibitions, that is why respectable people can enjoy base humour.
On the relief theory
(87-88-89) The relief theory of humor has similar problems in fitting the data. It works well enough for what Freud called "tendentious" jokes - the smutty, nasty, blasphemous kind. Such jokes quite obviously express forbidden impulses of an aggressive or sexual nature. The relief theory works less well for jokes based on sheer nonsense. Such "innocent" jokes, Freud claimed, also serve to overcome an inhibition: the adult inhibition against play...
But even "innocent" jokes are not entirely innocent, Freud claimed, since the urge to make them "may be equated with exhibitionism in the sexual field."...
Freud's theory has another empirical shortcoming. If the pleasure we derive from jokes comes from the release of psychic energy used to inhibit aggressive and sexual impulses, then it follows that the people who laugh the hardest at malicious jokes should be the ones who most deeply bury their aggressive tendencies.