July 21, 2008

"There are no moral or immoral jokes. A joke is either funny or it is not. That is all."

Jim Holt — author of "Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes"states a proposition (and debates it with Will Wilkinson whose immediate response is: "Can't possibly be true").

That joke Earl Butz told just wasn't funny?

Sarah Silverman's "the Holocaust isn't always funny" is funny?


Dad Bones said...

Edgy Earl, the Lenny Bruce of bureaucrats. Was he ahead of or behind his time?

bill said...

People can be moral or immoral. Jokes are just words.

Does anyone transcribe these blogginghead things? I'm interested in this one.

Moose said...

Show me a guy that can laugh at anything, and I'll show you a guy that liked Jeffery Dahmer's cooking...

rcocean said...

Butz wasn't funny - he died in Vegas. Silverman is always funny.

paul a'barge said...

Y'all realize that there's a Madison thing in here, right?

From the Wiki page:
only two newspapers - the Toledo, Ohio Blade and the Madison, Wisconsin Capital Times published the remark unchanged

MadisonMan said...

I will guess that the Cap Times printed the quote in full because it reflected so poorly on the Republican who uttered it. That's just a guess -- I was living in PA at the time, a teenager.

I didn't realize he was still alive at the start of the year. 98 when he died this past February!

AllenS said...

I'll bet that Earl was the Butz of a lot of jokes.

rhhardin said...

There are no funny feminist jokes.

KCFleming said...

that's not f.....sorry, cliche.

Skeptical said...

This is plainly false. But it is in the vicinity of an important truth. The important truth is that whether a joke is funny is independent of its being moral or immoral. A deeply, deeply immoral joke can be hilarious, not just in spite of its immorality, but independent of it, or even because of it.

Calling a joke 'not funny' because of its immorality is like denying that a cheeseburger is delicious because one finds the slaughter of cattle for meat immoral.

Trumpit said...

Many years ago, I saw the French comedy movie, My Favorite Partner, with my sister. It was subtitled in English. It was about an older corrupt police office in France who was partnered with a young, everything-by-the-book, straitlaced guy. They were exact opposites of each other in every way. I laughed hysterically throughout the movie, while, as I recall, my sister didn't laugh much. That crystallized in my mind the subjective nature of humor. So, funny or not funny isn't an inherent property of jokes. Some people, myself included, think life is a cruel, occasionally funny, joke. Yes, cruelness, crudeness, & tastelessness can be a property of both humor and humorless jokes. George Carlin was an expert at using profanity successfully to enhance his shtick; not many comedians are as successful at it as he was.

KCFleming said...


Everything is clearly going very well. am specially glad to hear that the two new friends have now made him acquainted with their whole set. All these, as I find from the record office, are thoroughly reliable people; steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards our Father's house. You speak of their being great laughers. I trust this does not mean that you are under the impression that laughter as such is always in our favour. The point is worth some attention.

I divide the causes of human laughter into Joy, Fun, the Joke Proper, and Flippancy. You will see the first among friends and lovers reunited on the eve of a holiday. Among adults some pretext in the way of Jokes is usually provided, but the facility with which the smallest witticisms produce laughter at such a time shows that they are not the real cause. What that real cause is we do not know. Something like it is expressed in much of that detestable art which the humans call Music, and something like it occurs in Heaven—a meaningless acceleration in the rhythm of celestial experience, quite opaque to us. Laughter of this kind does us no good and should always be discouraged. Besides, the phenomenon is of itself disgusting and a direct insult to the realism, dignity, and austerity of Hell.

Fun is closely related to Joy—a sort of emotional froth arising from the play instinct. It is very little use to us. It can sometimes be used, of course, to divert humans from something else which the Enemy would like them to be feeling or doing: but in itself it has wholly undesirable tendencies; it promotes charity, courage, contentment, and many other evils.

The Joke Proper, which turns on sudden perception of incongruity, is a much more promising field. I am not thinking primarily of indecent or bawdy humour, which, though much relied upon by second-rate tempters, is often disappointing in its results. The truth is that humans are pretty clearly divided on this matter into two classes. There are some to whom "no passion is as serious as lust" and for whom an indecent story ceases to produce lasciviousness precisely in so far as it becomes funny: there are others in whom laughter and lust are excited at the same moment and by the same things. The first sort joke about sex because it gives rise to many incongruities: the second cultivate incongruities because they afford a pretext for talking about sex. If your man is of the first type, bawdy humour will not help you—I shall never forget the hours which I wasted (hours to me of unbearable tedium) with one of my early patients in bars and smoking-rooms before I learned this rule. Find out which group the patient belongs to—and see that he does not find out.

The real use of Jokes or Humour is in quite a different direction, and it is specially promising among the English who take their "sense of humour" so seriously that a deficiency in this sense is almost the only deficiency at which they feel shame. Humour is for them the all-consoling and (mark this) the all-excusing, grace of life. Hence it is invaluable as a means of destroying shame. If a man simply lets others pay for him, he is "mean"; if he boasts of it in a jocular manner and twits his fellows with having been scored off, he is no longer "mean" but a comical fellow. Mere cowardice is shameful; cowardice boasted of with humorous exaggerations and grotesque gestures can passed off as funny. Cruelty is shameful—unless the cruel man can represent it as a practical joke. A thousand bawdy, or even blasphemous, jokes do not help towards a man's damnation so much as his discovery that almost anything he wants to do can be done, not only without the disapproval but with the admiration of his fellows, if only it can get itself treated as a Joke. And this temptation can be almost entirely hidden from your patient by that English seriousness about Humour. Any suggestion that there might be too much of it can be represented to him as "Puritanical" or as betraying a "lack of humour".

But flippancy is the best of all. In the first place it is very economical. Only a clever human can make a real Joke about virtue, or indeed about anything else; any of them can be trained to talk as if virtue were funny. Among flippant people the Joke is always assumed to have been made. No one actually makes it; but every serious subject is discussed in a manner which implies that they have already found a ridiculous side to it. If prolonged, the habit of Flippancy builds up around a man the finest armour-plating against the Enemy that I know, and it is quite free from the dangers inherent in the other sources of laughter. It is a thousand miles away from joy it deadens, instead of sharpening, the intellect; and it excites no affection between those who practice it,

Your affectionate uncle

Susan said...

You need a link to the Will
Wilkinson/Jim Holt Bloggingheads interview

UWS guy said...

George Carlin: Even Rape Is Funny

vbspurs said...

Earl Butz on the Pope Paul VI's "population control" stance:

He no playa the game, he no maka the rules


Come on that's funny. If Chico Marx had said it, he would've brought down the house.


Beth said...

Oscar Wilde got there before Jim Holt.

john said...

rcocean -

No, I think he died in D.C.

john said...

I didn't mean to be flippant about that.

Chip Ahoy said...

I went with Gary and his sister to their church one Christmas Eve. We were very young teenagers. Mary told me, a bit annoyed, of a church member with a regrettable singing voice, who nonetheless sang the loudest of the whole congregation. As it turned out, that woman was positioned directly in front of us. One look from Mary was enough to send all three of us into teenage giggles. I must mention Gary didn't know his own weight. He topped out any scale he stepped on, and wasn't able to read the dial anyway because his bulk blocked his view of the dial. So his precise weight was a mystery to all of us but he was simply the fattest person I ever knew. We were instructed to kneel in prayer. We did. Gary became wedged between fixed pews at the back of a large church and his honest struggle to get up was the funniest thing on Earth. We laughed our asses off and could. not. stop. It was painful. Even God thought that was hilarious. The preacher, not so much. We wanted to just get the hell out of there but Gary was still stuck. We could never return.

But that wasn't an actual joke.

In his books, The White House Years and Years of Upheaval, Henry Kissinger meets every single head of state and important diplomat and dignitary of those years. He provides exacting profiles of them with anecdotes of them with dry academic wit and with such surgical cutting precision as you're ever likely to read. The man is drop dead funny. Near the end of the second book I slowed down my reading so I could savor every word. I've wondered why he isn't better known for being a straight-up comedian with an utterly hilarious deadpan delivery. I think most people find him impossible to be amusing and so a great treasure in humor is lost to them. And that's a real shame.

Joe Hogan said...

Skeptical has it right. The inherent laugh value of a joke is independent of the moral content involved.

Consider the (in)famous joke known as "The Aristocrats". Google the term and check the Wiki entry. It covers it fully.

Suffice it to say the joke is offensive and immoral on every imaginable level, depending on the details provided by the teller. This joke has become famous, especially among comedians, our professional joke experts, exactly because of its transgressive nature.

Joe M. said...

Jim Holt shouldn't mimic Oscar Wilde so flippantly. He can quote Wilde all day long, but he clearly has no idea what Wilde was up to in Dorian.

Bah! Talk about taking something out of context.

Kirby Olson said...

I think you have to accept the moral premise of a joke for it to be funny.

Hitler told a joke once to Speer. He had Speer over for lunch and out in the yard were prisoners eating the grass. They were Jews who Hitler called his "lawn mowers." Hitler thought this was hysterical.

Later in the afternoon Hitler had them shot.

He thought that was even funnier.

At any rate, I think there CAN be a moral limit to jokes, and that it probably depends on where you stand when you hear a joke, and your relationship to the joke's butt.

I don't really like Carlin's jokes about God, either.

Donna B. said...

Whatever you do, don't follow the link on the Wikipedia page to the Aristrocrats joke database.

I only read two... and, um, well...
They aren't funny.

Kirby Olson said...

Oh, I just listened to this from about 35 minutes to 52 minutes and actually they both argue that morality IS a big part of humor. Neither one laughs at jokes that portray women as dumb, or minorities as stupid, or at any jokes that disturb the Democratic consensus. However, they both found Nixon to be a delightful butt of jokes, and they found Nixon's Earl Butts to be a perfectly good butt for jokes. They thought it was just delirious when one joke presented Nixon's wife as Deep Throat, giggling over the sexual assault they imagined on Nixon's dear companion.

So it was quite interesting to see that they were actually a perfect illustration of the idea that joking does create (or not) an aesthetic shared moment (or not)and which must be based on a common politics, and sensibility, which Ted Cohen writes about it in his very good book, Jokes: Philosophical Jokes on Laughing MAtters (U. of Chicago, 1999). (Cohen is a Kantian philosopher who teaches at the U. of Chicago.)

Nice vid! I hated these guys!

Blue Moon said...

I saw a guy on the Comedy Channel friday night doing some heavy duty un-p.c. humor. He appeared to be white, and was really going after ethnic cab drivers, black people, the handicapped, gays... It was pretty funny to me even though I am black. Part of the humor of course is that "its not supposed to be funny" and "a white guy can't say that." Probably the funniest joke was his contention that he hates foreign or arab cab drivers because they are racist against black people. He made a cabbie stop for a couple of black guys, and then the black guys robbed him (the comedian). I was shaking my head and laughing at the same time.

bill said...

Whatever you do, don't follow the link on the Wikipedia page to the Aristrocrats joke database.

I only read two... and, um, well...
They aren't funny.

The point of telling an Aristocrats joke is not necessarily to tell a funny story. It may occur, but the bigger point of the Aristocrats is the mechanics of telling and constructing a "joke." In a group setting, as in the movie, it also becomes an act of oneupsmanship of vulgarity. It's the situation of telling it that is funny, not necessarily reading the joke outside that situation. It's really more of an antijoke joke.

Knock knock
Who's there?
Dyslexic zombie
Dyslexic zombie who?

Eli Blake said...


I'll bet that Earl was the Butz of a lot of jokes.

I remember watching Johnny Carson the next night. He made an announcement that: "the NAACP dinner to honor Earl Butz has been cancelled."

When Carson said it, even a lame joke could be hilarious.

AllenS said...

Eli said...


I'll bet that Earl was the Butz of a lot of jokes.

I remember watching Johnny Carson the next night."

The next night after I said it? By the way, it's AllenS, not Allan. Oftentimes, not only you are not funny, but you make no sense. Did you get the Butz of my joke?

blake said...

bill is dead on. "The Aristocrats" is stand-up jazz. I can't imagine much less funny that reading variations on it.

(There probably is a humor writer's variation on the theme, though.)

Eli's right about Carson, too. He was always up front about his writers, and part of his act--fasincating in a meta sort of way--was to make you feel sorry for him for having to tell the awful jokes they wrote.

It was brilliant. You could tell they were on to something funny but couldn't make it happen, so Carson went with the unfunny, and made you laugh anyway.

Richard Fagin said...

You missed the FIRST Earl Butz joke, which concerned a proclamation against contraception by the Pope. The good Secretary said in response, "You no playa da game, you no maka da rules!"

The second joke got him fired because it wasn't funny at all. It was tasteless.

vbspurs said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
vbspurs said...

It was brilliant. You could tell they were on to something funny but couldn't make it happen, so Carson went with the unfunny, and made you laugh anyway.

I think your analysis, and that of Bill's before you, is spot on, Blake.

The trick with Carson is that he must've had jokes that were wonderful on paper, but they don't translate well when said out loud. He went with them anyway, turning the tables on himself, being very self-aware.

(I told my father the Walter Neff joke about a priest, a vicar, and Barack Obama walking into a bar, but changed the cadence and words so that it SOUNDED funnier when spoken)

Bob Newhart was also a master of this subtle, very WASP sense of humour which also worked magnificently with him.

Personally, though Richard Pryor was my all-time favourite comic, I couldn't imagine Pryor hosting a talk show.

That doesn't take away from either Carson or Pryor, but being intimately aware of how the audience perceives us is key to comedy.


walter neff said...

Thanks for making my joke funny.

Donna B. said...

I'll try to believe that the Aristocrats jokes can be funny when told the right way. But I really can't think of anything less funny than a bunch of comedians trying to one-up each other on vulgarity.

Carson and Newhart could have you rolling on the floor with just a raised eyebrow.

vbspurs said...


FUNNIER. If it hadn't been funny to begin with, it wouldn't have made such an impression. ;)

This was one of my changes, which sounds better spoken, hence my point.

"Sure, I'll be after takin' some Guinness Red, my son"

Guess you had to be there. :)

Trooper York said...

"But I really can't think of anything less funny than a bunch of comedians trying to one-up each other on vulgarity."

I beg to differ. Reread the post about global warming from Saturday. There's nothing less funny than that.

blake said...

Donna B.--

While it's not for everyone, the documentary "The Aristocrats" is a charming yet repulsive look at modern comedic versions of the joke.

Some of them manage to be quite funny, but mostly it's a meta-funny thing. Like Drew Carey's insistence that you have to this sort of flamenco hand gesture, Phyllis Diller reaction to hearing it for the first time, or Billy Connolly's or Eric Idle trying to come up with British equivalents. And then Gilbert Gottfried's telling of it after 9/11 seems sort of brave in context.

It also serves as an examination of what, exactly, is offensive.

I imagine the environmental version would have the family littering, driving an SUV, etc.

vbspurs said...

Did you guys who saw "The Aristocrats" remember the guy with the cards?

That was AMAZINGLY funny.

Also, SATC also-ran, Mario Cartone doing Liza Minelli.

vbspurs said...

I just figured out who Jim Holt reminds me of, physically, and even in his facial moues.

Hugh Laurie.

rcocean said...

I found Butz's Black joke just mean spirited. But maybe you need your sheet on to enjoy it.

Reminds me of Carlin's jokes about Religion. Only funny to those who share the hate.

Kirby Olson said...

Ted Cohen argues in his book Jokes that you need to accept the moral viewpoint in a joke in order to laugh, that if you accept a joke, you form an aesthetic community of laughter. Nothing's worse than telling a joke, and getting the response that you are an imbecile, or a creep. When you watch these two guys they laugh at the same things. They don't laugh at women, but they do laugh at lesbians. It's quite interesting to see them side by side, esp. the last twenty minutes.

I do think you have to share a moral common sense with another person in order to laugh with them, just as Cohen says, and as these two actually argue. (Did Ann finish listening to the broadcast?)

bill said...

Donna B. said...
I'll try to believe that the Aristocrats jokes can be funny when told the right way. But I really can't think of anything less funny than a bunch of comedians trying to one-up each other on vulgarity.

Carson and Newhart could have you rolling on the floor with just a raised eyebrow.

Donna, just because some of us think it's funny doesn't mean you have to. Obviously. If you want eyebrow raising, search youtube for the Aristocrats jokes told by a mime. On a public street. In the background you can see people trying to figure out what he's doing.