Academic journal article Western Folklore

Engaging Humor

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Engaging Humor

Article excerpt

Engaging Humor. By Elliott Oring. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 208, preface, appendix, notes, index. $29.95 cloth)

Elliot Oring opens this book with a strong statement that explains why one should study humor-not because it is fun necessarily, but because it is important. "Some jokes are truly beautiful," he says, "and those who create them, reshape them, and orally purvey them are often genuine artists" (ix). Jokes, or rather humor and laughter, are not only aesthetically pleasing, but also important, because they are essential to our humanity; therefore, "humor could be considered trivial only from a perspective that holds humanity itself to be trivial" (x). Engaging Humor consists of ten essays, only two of which have been published before. The topics range from absurd humor to racist humor, from blond jokes to Jewish jokes, and from jokes in conversations to jokes on web pages. Together these chapters cover three aspects of jokes, namely their structure, their meanings, and their motives.

In his discussions of the structure of jokes, Oring defends his theory that jokes are characterized by what he calls appropriate incongruity-that is, they bring together images, thoughts, or ideas that at first appear not to fit together, but that looked at another way, are not incongruous at all. The incongruity theory is well-known among humor scholars, but Oring has modified it by arguing that the incongruity in jokes is never completely resolved. He criticizes the joke analyses offered by other humor scholars who assume that jokes are processed sequentially from incongruity to final resolution. Minute analyses and counter-analyses of specific jokes are likely to be of most interest to fellow humor specialists engaged in this particular debate, but the nonspecialist will find the appropriate-incongruity concept useful.

The second theme running through many of these essays is the assertion that jokes mean something-although these meanings are not always transparent. Oring's analysis of the meaning of blond jokes illustrates this approach. This recent joke cycle, in which blonds are depicted as absurdly stupid and promiscuous, has usually been interpreted as a series of thinly disguised attacks on women in general. This view has been repeated so often it has become almost an article of faith, but Oring is not willing to accept it, if only because the jokes also feature brunette women, and because the themes of this cycle repeats similar themes in a host of other cycles such as Polish jokes. "The dumb-blond jokes are not about blonds, nor are they about women per se. Rather they exaggerate and make foolish values associated with traditional images of women. The jokes play with a set of values no longer in tune with a much-changed world" (66). …

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