What is a Joke? A Dialogue (part 2 - part 1 can be found here)
(Note: this blog contains an extremely distasteful and offensive comment - I say 'comment' because whether or not it qualifies as a joke is the reason for its inclusion. Obviously I don't endorse said comment, etc.)
At the risk of appearing rather churlish in the face of interest from an actual member of the public, I’m not convinced by the equation. For one thing, I’m not sure what difference, if any, holds between ‘+’ and ‘*’. For another, although a joke will often feature all three elements, it seems possible to find jokes that don’t. A simple pun such as ‘Why was six scared of seven? Because seven eight nine’ works almost completely independently of any mood, and its subject matter appears to be nothing other than the potential for double meanings with which the English language, particularly when spoken aloud, is so blessed.
But the more general point about mood is well made. Here’s a very similar joke to the previous effort: ‘What did Freud think came between fear and sex? Funf’ There’s a bit more to this joke, for a few reasons – for one thing, the punning is between different languages. But it also involves a shift in what might be termed register, and which is at least close to what you refer to as ‘mood’: what appeared to be psychoanalytic totems are revealed as mere placeholders for wordplay. There’s a change in attitude which isn’t brought about by argument or derision, but by slyer and arguably more effective means. It’s a lot more subtle than the manipulation of mood Frankie Boyle is so good at, but it’s still there.
I think your suggestion of constants in the equation, i.e., elements present in every joke or ever good joke, is very interesting. I’m loath to speculate as to what these might be – that way lies the elephant’s graveyard of Theories of Humour – but I’m not so loath that I won’t throw around a couple of ideas for the sake of a blog post. One contender is probably wit (more or less the extra level of cleverness you mention). But witty things are not always funny, as the plays of Oscar Wilde so epigrammatically demonstrate, and not all funny jokes are clever (although interestingly, the best examples I can think of are probably from slapstick).
Another possibility is incongruity or the confounding of expectations, which was a criterion I suggested in my original article. Interestingly, I came across a possible counterexample to this recently, in Jim Holt's charming little volume Stop Me if You've Heard This Before. It's one of the few jokes, or attempted jokes, to have impacted on a national level - it cost then US Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz his job when he was overheard making it on a flight from the Republican National Convention in 1976. It is, undoubtedly, quite something:
“I’ll tell you what the coloreds want. It’s three things: first, a tight pussy; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to shit”[i]
Obviously, this is a truly feeble attempt at humour. Holt comments:
“What is striking about the Butz joke, apart from its ugliness, is its dismal lack of art. It contains no paralogical twist, makes no unexpected conceptual links; it is merely a clumsy enumeration of racist stereotypes. (Indeed, it is recognisable as an intended joke only by dint of its formal observance of the Rule of Three.)”
I’m inclined to suggest that Butz’s comment is not a joke at all. In saying this, I’m not appealing to its crudely offensive nature. Many jokes are crudely offensive; indeed, revolting examples are only a couple of clicks away from this page. But this particular clumsy enumeration of stereotypes lacks the element of surprise, of the reader or audience having to draw a connection themselves, that seems to me to distinguish jokes from brute insults or offensive remarks.[ii] In short, there is no joke to get here. If there’s anything that characterises jokes, it’s that they can be ‘got’, much as commands can be obeyed or questions answered.
[ii] These can, unlike Bautz’s effort, themselves be witty: for instance (to continue the theme of 70s politics) Denis Healey’s famous remark that being criticised by Geoffrey Howe was like being savaged by a dead sheep. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t say that Healey had in this instance made a joke.