May 22, 2005

"To tell a joke at the office or a party these days is to pronounce oneself a cornball, an attention hog..."

Ah, yes.
While many in the world of humor and comedy agree that the joke is dead, there is little consensus on who or what killed it or exactly when it croaked. Theories abound: the atomic bomb, A.D.D., the Internet, even the feminization of American culture, have all been cited as possible causes. In the academic world scholars have been engaged in a lengthy postmortem of the joke for some time, but still no grand unifying theory has emerged.

The feminization of America? We're blaming women? Supposedly, women were bad at telling jokes, but only because men are/were interested in using jokes to communicate without revealing anything about themeselves. (I note: That's kind of like talking about sports -- or blogging.)

Anyway, people love humor, and humor lives on. It's just the full-scale joke that's dead, and, I think that's good:
[S]cholars say, in a social situation wit plays better than old-style joke telling. Witty remarks push the conversation along and enliven it, encouraging others to contribute.

Jokes, on the other hand, cause conversation to screech to a halt and require everyone to focus on the joke teller, which can be awkward.
So, then, is recounting anecdotes dead too? It seems to me this is a modern preference for a conversation that rotates fairly quickly. No one wants any one person to talk too long. I don't think this is just a cultural "A.D.D.," but a positive understanding that people in a conversation are developing a social relationship that needs to work well. So no one should dominate.

I can see how the social mixing of the sexes and the equality of women would tend to increase the recognition that the conversation must rotate. In mixed company, it's more noticeable that one person is being too dominant -- whether that person is a man or a women. So if a man does one of those old-style, full-scale jokes, the women may be thinking, when is this character going to shut up? But even if women don't tell jokes, they may relay simple facts in long-form stories, an elaborate play-by-play of who went where and who said what, and leave the rest of the group -- maybe especially men -- exasperated.

Oh, I suppose people have always been bored when one person holds the floor too long. Isn't that why we hate meetings and lectures? Maybe the difference is that now that we're used to the way TV and movies try to cut out all the boring parts and, perhaps more, now that we're used to clicking from place to place on the internet the instant we want, we're really in touch with our feelings about not wanting to put up with anything tedious.

14 comments:

CM said...

I don't think anecdotes "cause conversation to screech to a halt" like jokes do. You can stop someone in the middle of an anecdote and ask them a question. You can also relate to an anecdote and continue the conversation once it's over -- "That reminds me of the time when..." And an anecdote helps people get to know you a little better. On the other hand, if you interrupt a joke-teller you just get dirty looks, and once the joke-teller is done it's unlikely that anyone will say, "You know, I was once in a helicopter with the Pope and a rabbi..."

Ann Althouse said...

Good point. Though there are some pretty hardcore anecdote-tellers who will be all "let me finish my story!" if you try to rotate in.

Ron said...

I love joke-telling more than wit; rather peoples attempts at wit. Wit, with the right person, is funnier, more sly, and crueller than a joke, but far too many people think they're Dorothy Parker when they're not.

refering to a joke as "dominating the conversation",-- and we don't like anyone dominating -- that's the feminization of America!

Having said these things, I still ultimately blame joke-tellers. They get too self-centered in their telling, and constantly break the divine rule of comedy: Watch Your Audience. Even with something as individually oriented as a joke, you still have to watch people's reactions while you tell it! The funniest story on earth can be made unfunny if you don't watch how people react to your delivery...

The "modern preference for a conversation that rotates fairly quickly" strikes me as just as bad a form of selfishness as a bad joke-teller, and this form too, will pass...

Ron said...

But even if women don't tell jokes, they may relay simple facts in long-form stories, an elaborate play-by-play of who went where and who said what, and leave the rest of the group -- maybe especially men -- exasperated.

I don't notice any women who do this feeling that they are rudely dominating conversation; perhaps they could learn from joke-telling how to get to a punch line.


Oh, I suppose people have always been bored when one person holds the floor too long. Isn't that why we hate meetings and lectures?

Whew! We're talking about a joke, not an hour-long lecture!



Maybe the difference is that now that we're used to the way TV and movies try to cut out all the boring parts and, perhaps more, now that we're used to clicking from place to place on the internet the instant we want, we're really in touch with our feelings about not wanting to put up with anything tedious.

We're really in touch with our childish impatience more than before; I don't know if this constitutes "our feeling." I suppose these days it does, as I have lost track of the number of people who want to stay 14 forever...

Earth Girl said...

So where does story-telling fall into this spectrum? "Everyone loves a good story" was the rationale behind some of the best copywriting I saw in my marketing days. I believe oral storytelling is becoming a lost art and our society is poorer for it. In fact, good storytelling is part of the appeal of many blogs.

Ann Althouse said...

Earth Girl: I think the key word is "good." Some people drag out the most mundane things into stories. People are too polite to blurt out "You talk too much" or "Get to the point," and the problem storytellers I'm referring to do not see that they are boring people. They may think they are doing everyone a favor by preventing uncomfortable silences, and some of their audience may even like being saved from the obligation to contribute.

As for blogs, short entries work best. You should only go as long as you have to, I think. My main piece of advice to bloggers is to be as concise as you can. You should also have a lot to say and write a lot, but each point should be made really succinctly.

Earth Girl said...

That's true for all writing. And those are sound rules for most bloggers, but there are exceptions - Lileks and Woodlief are two that come to mind.

Ann Althouse said...

I only know Lileks, whom I like, but I do think he's better when he doesn't resort to padding.

Oh, and Chickenmagazine, I forgot to say, "You know, I was once in a helicopter with the Pope and a rabbi..." -- that was really funny!

Earth Girl said...

http://www.tonywoodlief.com/

purple_kangaroo said...

I don't know how to do a trackback ping, but this inspired my blogging today.

Thanks for a great topic and some thought-provoking words.

Murky Thoughts said...

Sure "feminization" will stifle male joke telling, just as "masculinization" will stifle female joke telling. A huge fraction of jokes are sexual and/or at the expense of adversaries or competitors or people who make us uncomfortable for whatever reason. When you consider the increased gender and ethnic diversity in the workplace and the influence of political correctness it's a wonder anybody laughs at all anymore.

Ron said...

Did you hear the one about the rabbi, the blogger, and the duck?

No?

Well, I can't tell you until Kos declares an open thread...

Chris said...

Your interpretation of "feminization of American culture" killing the joke is interesting. When I read it I immediately thought "because all the 'dumb blonde' jokes became faux pas."

On a side note, have you noticed there are some people who can only talk about what they saw on TV?

hypnosis said...
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