A joke is a display of humour in which words are used within a specific and well-defined narrative structure to make people laugh and is usually not meant to be interpreted literally. It usually takes the form of a story, often with dialogue, and ends in a punch line, whereby the humorous element of the story is revealed; this can be done using a pun or other type of word play, irony or sarcasm, logical incompatibility, hyperbole, or other means. Linguist Robert Hetzron offers the definition:
Identified as one of the simple forms of oral literature by the Dutch linguist André Jolles, jokes are passed along anonymously. They are told in both private and public settings; a single person tells a joke to his friend in the natural flow of conversation, or a set of jokes is told to a group as part of scripted entertainment. Jokes are also passed along in written form or, more recently, through the internet.
Any joke documented from the past has been saved through happenstance rather than design. Jokes do not belong to refined culture, but rather to the entertainment and leisure of all classes. As such, any printed versions were considered ephemera, i.e., temporary documents created for a specific purpose and intended to be thrown away. Many of these early jokes deal with scatological and sexual topics, entertaining to all social classes but not to be valued and saved.
The earliest extant joke book is the Philogelos (Greek for The Laughter-Lover), a collection of 265 jokes written in crude ancient Greek dating to the fourth or fifth century AD. The author of the collection is obscure and a number of different authors are attributed to it, including "Hierokles and Philagros the grammatikos", just "Hierokles", or, in the Suda, "Philistion". British classicist Mary Beard states that the Philogelos may have been intended as a jokester's handbook of quips to say on the fly, rather than a book meant to be read straight through. Many of the jokes in this collection are surprisingly familiar, even though the typical protagonists are less recognisable to contemporary readers: the absent-minded professor, the eunuch, and people with hernias or bad breath. The Philogelos even contains a joke similar to Monty Python's "Dead Parrot Sketch".
During the 15th century, the printing revolution spread across Europe following the development of the movable type printing press. This was coupled with the growth of literacy in all social classes. Printers turned out Jestbooks along with Bibles to meet both lowbrow and highbrow interests of the populace. One early anthology of jokes was the Facetiae by the Italian Poggio Bracciolini, first published in 1470. The popularity of this jest book can be measured on the twenty editions of the book documented alone for the 15th century. Another popular form was a collection of jests, jokes and funny situations attributed to a single character in a more connected, narrative form of the picaresque novel. Examples of this are the characters of Rabelais in France, Till Eulenspiegel in Germany, Lazarillo de Tormes in Spain and Master Skelton in England. There is also a jest book ascribed to William Shakespeare, the contents of which appear to both inform and borrow from his plays. All of these early jestbooks corroborate both the rise in the literacy of the European populations and the general quest for leisure activities during the Renaissance in Europe.
The practice of printers using jokes and cartoons as page fillers was also widely used in the broadsides and chapbooks of the 19th century and earlier. With the increase in literacy in the general population and the growth of the printing industry, these publications were the most common forms of printed material between the 16th and 19th centuries throughout Europe and North America. Along with reports of events, executions, ballads and verse, they also contained jokes. Only one of many broadsides archived in the Harvard library is described as "1706. Grinning made easy; or, Funny Dick's unrivalled collection of curious, comical, odd, droll, humorous, witty, whimsical, laughable, and eccentric jests, jokes, bulls, epigrams, &c. With many other descriptions of wit and humour." These cheap publications, ephemera intended for mass distribution, were read alone, read aloud, posted and discarded.
There are many types of joke books in print today; a search on the internet provides a plethora of titles available for purchase. They can be read alone for solitary entertainment, or used to stock up on new jokes to entertain friends. Some people try to find a deeper meaning in jokes, as in "Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar... Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes".[note 3] However a deeper meaning is not necessary to appreciate their inherent entertainment value. Magazines frequently use jokes and cartoons as filler for the printed page. Reader's Digest closes out many articles with an (unrelated) joke at the bottom of the article. The New Yorker was first published in 1925 with the stated goal of being a "sophisticated humour magazine" and is still known for its cartoons.
Following its linguistic framing the joke, in the form of a story, can be told. It is not required to be verbatim text like other forms of oral literature such as riddles and proverbs. The teller can and does modify the text of the joke, depending both on memory and the present audience. The important characteristic is that the narrative is succinct, containing only those details which lead directly to an understanding and decoding of the punchline. This requires that it support the same (or similar) divergent scripts which are to be embodied in the punchline.
The narrative always contains a protagonist who becomes the "butt" or target of the joke. This labelling serves to develop and solidify stereotypes within the culture. It also enables researchers to group and analyse the creation, persistence and interpretation of joke cycles around a certain character. Some people are naturally better performers than others; however, anyone can tell a joke because the comic trigger is contained in the narrative text and punchline. A joke poorly told is still funny, unless errors or omissions make the intended relationship between the narrative and the punchline unintelligible.
Expected response to a joke is laughter. The joke teller hopes the audience "gets it" and is entertained. This leads to the premise that a joke is actually an "understanding test" between individuals and groups. If the listeners do not get the joke, they are not understanding the two scripts which are contained in the narrative as they were intended. Or they do "get it" and don't laugh; it might be too obscene, too gross or too dumb for the current audience. A woman might respond differently to a joke told by a male colleague around the water cooler than she would to the same joke overheard in a women's lavatory. A joke involving toilet humour may be funnier told on the playground at elementary school than on a college campus. The same joke will elicit different responses in different settings. The punchline in the joke remains the same, however, it is more or less appropriate depending on the current context.
The context explores the specific social situation in which joking occurs. The narrator automatically modifies the text of the joke to be acceptable to different audiences, while at the same time supporting the same divergent scripts in the punchline. The vocabulary used in telling the same joke at a university fraternity party and to one's grandmother might well vary. In each situation, it is important to identify both the narrator and the audience as well as their relationship with each other. This varies to reflect the complexities of a matrix of different social factors: age, sex, race, ethnicity, kinship, political views, religion, power relationships, etc. When all the potential combinations of such factors between the narrator and the audience are considered, then a single joke can take on infinite shades of meaning for each unique social setting.
The context, however, should not be confused with the function of the joking. "Function is essentially an abstraction made on the basis of a number of contexts". In one long-term observation of men coming off the late shift at a local café, joking with the waitresses was used to ascertain sexual availability for the evening. Different types of jokes, going from general to topical into explicitly sexual humour signalled openness on the part of the waitress for a connection. This study describes how jokes and joking are used to communicate much more than just good humour. That is a single example of the function of joking in a social setting, but there are others. Sometimes jokes are used simply to get to know someone better. What makes them laugh, what do they find funny? Jokes concerning politics, religion or sexual topics can be used effectively to gauge the attitude of the audience to any one of these topics. They can also be used as a marker of group identity, signalling either inclusion or exclusion for the group. Among pre-adolescents, "dirty" jokes allow them to share information about their changing bodies. And sometimes joking is just simple entertainment for a group of friends.
The context of joking in turn leads to a study of joking relationships, a term coined by anthropologists to refer to social groups within a culture who take part in institutionalised banter and joking. These relationships can be either one-way or a mutual back and forth between partners. "The joking relationship is defined as a peculiar combination of friendliness and antagonism. The behaviour is such that in any other social context it would express and arouse hostility; but it is not meant seriously and must not be taken seriously. There is a pretence of hostility along with a real friendliness. To put it in another way, the relationship is one of permitted disrespect." Joking relationships were first described by anthropologists within kinship groups in Africa. But they have since been identified in cultures around the world, where jokes and joking are used to mark and reinforce appropriate boundaries of a relationship. 2b1af7f3a8