The Other Joker: Jim Holt

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

Jim Holt, author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, admits that the act of analyzing humor is inherently unfunny. Luckily, his book contains a lot of jokes. Jada Yuan attempted to match wits with him.

Knock, knock.
Who’s there?

9/11 who?

You said you’d never forget!
That’s in my book.

Oops. Toward the end?
What do you mean, toward the end? It’s on page 3.

No, it’s not. I read 74 pages.
You’re right. It’s probably in the index. Ben Healey, of The Atlantic, wrote a humorous index. It’s better than the text.

What’s the last great joke you told?
Most of my jokes fall flat. My delivery is terrible.

I bet you’ve told many jokes in your lifetime.
Yes, I’m so old I still remember when TV dinners were in black and white. I’m so old I remember when CUNY was CUNA.

Get that one?

The University of New Amsterdam. No one gets that joke. The thing is, only losers and social pariahs tell jokes now as a matter of habit. The only time I’ve had a good audience for jokes is at a dinner party, after everyone’s used up their standard repartee.

What’s the dirtiest joke you can tell at a Park Avenue dinner party?
A good dirty joke is a joke that those who would be offended by don’t have the background to get. Subtle blow-job jokes fall into that category. There’s one from when Bill Clinton went on a diet. The joke was that he could now see his intern. I told that to some people at The Wall Street Journal, and they didn’t get it. I thought, well, maybe that’s not an oral-sex culture.

What makes something funny?
The Freud sex theory says that jokes are funny because they express our forbidden impulses about sex. The old superiority theory says that we laugh when we feel this sudden glory of thinking we’re superior to someone else, like cuckolds and Polacks. And the incongruity theory says we laugh when things from different compartments of our mind are absurdly yanked together.

And your theory is?
My theory of the progress of jokes is an evolution, where filth and nastiness give way to the sheer delight in absurdity. Millions of years from now, our hyperintelligent descendants will all be philosophers and mathematicians. They’ll be pure mind, and they’ll love only pure absurdity. And we’ll revert back to chimp humor. Chimps think it’s funny when you present a rock to someone and say it’s food.

What’s the perfect joke?
Freud said that jokes should be the absolute minimum number of words. Even two words. The only one I could think of was, “Pretentious, moi?”

That’s the perfect joke?
No, but a lot of people have found it amusing. But you probably don’t know French.

Stop Me If You’ve Heard This
W.W. Norton. 160 pages. $15.95.

The Other Joker: Jim Holt