What is a Joke? The Joke according to Dave

Dave’s Funniest Joke competition does provide a snapshot of Fringe humour, albeit seen through the rather restricted lens of a promotional gimmick. Indeed, the most interesting feature of the list is how limited the kinds of jokes on it are. They are all very short, which is understandable in the context, though it’s not as though there are no good long jokes. Unsurprisingly, these short jokes are mostly puns, some extremely contrived, others less so. (George Ryegold’s is interesting in that it’s a pun, but it trades on the metaphorical use of ‘frowned upon’ which is rooted in the literal description of someone angry as frowning. It might be for this reason that it’s less obviously a pun than, say, Chris Turner’s effort, or either of Stewart Francis’s.)

It may not be coincidence that my two favourites (Marsh and Kumar) are not puns. Brian Logan notes that Marsh’s effort “succeeds because it both punctures an expectation and implies a whole bizarre reality in only 12 words”; this is not something you could accuse most of the other jokes on the list of doing.

Logan’s article delivers some blowback against the Dave list. As a number of the comments below his article point out, the award celebrates jokes rather than all humour, so Logan seems to be using a false premise to criticise the competition.  But I think his complaint also misses a more fundamental point. In general jokes ought to be portable; it should be possible for them to work when told by different people in different circumstances (though obviously not by any person in any circumstance). It’s true that certain jokes only work when told by certain kinds of people, e.g., jokes about one’s appearance or manner. But the majority of jokes on the list could be repeated straightforwardly over the water cooler, without the need to fill in any background information (“So the person telling this joke is a young Caucasian male…”). And that’s not, in and of itself, a criticism, any more than it’s a criticism of a play that it can be staged in different ways, or a song that it can be covered by different artists.

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