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Inside Jokes: Science Writer Jim Holt Explores Why We Laugh

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Inside Jokes: Science Writer Jim Holt Explores Why We Laugh
What do you get when you cross scholarly research and **** jokes? Nothing to laugh at, normally. But science writer Jim Holt defies the Heisenberg principle of humor — you can't study it without killing it — in his book Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes. We caught up with him walking into a bar.
Wired: One question you tackle is who invented the joke. Weren't we cracking wise back in the caves?
Holt:No, the classic joke form — setup with incongruity, punch line that resolves the incongruity—seems to have come out of Greece and Rome. There's this guy in Greek -mythology called Palamedes who invented practically everything — numbers, currency, lighthouses, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He also supposedly invented the joke. And, of course, he was stoned to death.
Wired: So where do new jokes come from?
Holt:It used to be that all the jokes I got came from Wall Street. Now, with the Internet, they're sort of everywhere and nowhere at once. But the ideas for jokes are cultural — concepts that keep reappearing in different guises over the centuries.
Wired: There are lots of theories about why we joke. Which do you find most plausible?
Holt:Well, there's the superiority theory, that jokes express scorn for your inferiors — cripples and cuckolds and foreigners and the like. Plato said we laugh at vice. Then there's the Freudian interpretation, that it's all about sexual repression. Finally, there's the seduction theory, based on the observation that men do most of the joking while women do most of the laughing. Christopher Hitchens wrote a piece in Vanity Fair arguing that the only way most guys can impress women is to make them laugh.
Wired: But your favorite explanation is a mashup of Kant and evolutionary biology, right?
Holt:V. S. Ramachandran, the brain researcher, has a theory about the origin of laughter — that when you're in the jungle and there's an apparent threat, the first member of the kinship group to notice that it's not a real threat emits this stereotyped vocalization. And it's contagious, so everyone starts laughing. That's also the basis of the relief theory of humor, that there's a release of the energy you had summoned up to solve some puzzle. Kant said that the essence of humor is a strained expectation dissolving into nothing.
Wired: Did you find any candidates for the perfect joke?
Holt:I did find what might be the shortest possible joke: "Pretentious? Moi?"


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