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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Evolution of Religious (and Other) Jokes

Science writer Jim Holt was on NPR's "On Point" last night talking about the origins of laughter. Holt is the author of a new book called Stop Me If You've Heard This, and he had some fascinating things to say about why we laugh and tell jokes.
Laughter, Holt thinks, can be traced back to prehistoric hunters who, wandering through the jungle, would perceive a threat in the air, something that looked disturbing, but then, "through a surprising reinterpretation," the perceived threat would "dissolve into nothing." The ripple of relief came out as laughter, he says, and it's similar to what we experience today at the end of a joke.
Holt also touched on the different theories of jokes, which are seen as ways of laughing out our aggressive instincts and forbidden impulses, displaying our feelings of superiority, and engaging in intellectual delight. Some of the best jokes, he says, are religion jokes, and there are "jokes for every religious sect." According to Holt, Unitarians—known for being tolerant and broad-minded—are the most enlightened when it comes to humor, while Jews, he says, have a "special penchant for joking" as a result of their tradition of Talmudic reasoning. The Talmud is a body of commentary on the Torah, and it's all about logical and linguistic nuances without regard for practical importance— a key element of some jokes. Jewish jokes also emerge from their history of persecution, he says, in part because of the release and transcendence that comes with "laughing in the face of suffering," but also because Jews often had to leave one country and enter another, experiencing a new language from the outside, making it ripe for puns. —Heather Wax