Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture

Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture

Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture

Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture


Laughter, contemporary theory suggests, is often aggressive in some manner and may be prompted by a sudden perception of incongruity combined with memories of past emotional experience. Given this importance of the past to our recognition of the comic, it follows that some "traditions" dispose us to ludic responses. The studies in Of Corpse: Death and Humor in Folklore and Popular Culture examine specific interactions of text (jokes, poetry, epitaphs, iconography, film drama) and social context (wakes, festivals, disasters) that shape and generate laughter. Uniquely, however, the essays here peruse a remarkable paradox---the convergence of death and humor.


In October 2002, after soliciting and critiquing over 40,000 jokes from seventy countries, Richard Wiseman (University of Hertfordshire), in collaboration with the British Association for the Advancement of Science, proclaimed the “world’s funniest joke,” a narrative submitted by Gurpal Gosall (Manchester, UK):

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls
to the ground. He doesn’t seem to be breathing, his eyes are rolled back in
his head. the other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency ser
vices. He gasps to the operator: “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The
operator, in a calm soothing voice says: “Just take it easy. I can help. First, let’s
make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence, then a shot is heard. the guy’s voice
comes back on the line. He says: “OK, now what?”

Www.laughlab.co.uk/winner.html: October 3, 2002

As the essays in this volume reveal, the fact that the winning joke features a theme of death is hardly surprising, nor are its mechanisms of humor. Laughter, humor theory suggests, is a socially constructed form of communication (Carrell 1997; Fine 1997a, 1997b; Norrick 1993) that expresses pleasure (Morreall 1983, 38-59). Moreover, as Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) argued in 1650 with his famous descriptive, “sudden glory” (see Bergler 1956, 4-6; Gruner 1978, 29-30; Holland 1982, 44-47), laughter is often prompted by a sudden perception of incongruity (Alden et al 2000; Forabosco 1992; Koestler 1964; Morreall 1989; Oring 1992, 1-15, 1995a), that makes us feel superior to others. From Sigmund Freud’s point of view, the aggressive pleasure of tendentious humor is a transformative, defensive process that can provide relief for repressed energies (inhibitions, thoughts, feelings) (Freud 1960 [1905]:181-236; also see Portous 1988). in conflating humor and death, the previous joke suddenly juxtaposes a serious matter, concern for the health of a collapsed hunting companion, with an absurd, murderous action—shooting him.

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