What’s better than one joke? A whole cycle of them! Here I define a joke cycle in terms of folklore studies, focusing on the relevance factor.
In my #FolkloreThursday post defining jokes, I focus primarily on their formal features: the humor of jokes being expressed in narrative, or question-and-answer form, or visually, and so on. Here, I’d like to talk about thematic clusters of jokes that folklorists call cycles.
A cycle is a grouping of jokes that form around a specific current event. Typical events that inspire cycles include politics (Dan Quayle or Bill Clinton jokes come to mind), disasters (the Challenger explosion), and massive cultural upheavals such as immigration (as with Polish jokes). Cycles stay in circulation as long as the issue they address remains of interest to people, on either a conscious or unconscious level. The jokes in a cycle tend to exhibit interlinked themes that often come down to expressing a particular social concern.
As one example of a joke cycle, check out my essay on World War II humor. And, as a reminder that not all jokes are delivered orally, keep in mind that I’m studying the Obama/Biden meme cycle. The cycle’s only a few months old, and it may last a while or die, but for now, it’s intriguing to see how the cycle is developing.
My folklore mentor Alan Dundes was, as a Freudian, drawn to the idea that “no piece of folklore continues to be transmitted unless it means something” (vii). He went so far as to state that this is true even if the speaker or audience can’t articulate the joke’s meaning, and perhaps this is because jokes serve as “socially sanctioned outlets for expressing taboo ideas and subjects” (vii). Folklore as outlet is one of the functions of folklore that we’re so fond of discussing, and joke cycles play perfectly into this as they stay in circulation as long as they’re relevant.
But relevance – or its lack – can kill a cycle. As Dundes notes,
The American penchant for novelty tends to prohibit any cycle from lasting too long. Any given cycle seems to gradually or abruptly be replaced by another. For example, no one tells 1940s “Little Moron Jokes” in the 1980s. (vi)
Further, the serial nature of joke cycles is significant. Telling one elicits another. The performance of jokes in a cycle is often a display of verbal and/or cultural competence, a way of showing that the performer’s on top of current events and has the best/funniest material at hand.
Folklorist Monica Foote treats Livejournal userpics as a type of cycle, based on inside jokes generated from within the community. This leads to insights about the origins of cycles being available in many realms of culture, even as the expression of the cycle is usually folkloric in nature. Foote observes:
In addition to the sort of inside joke that we’ve just seen, cycles are also frequently drawn from popular culture. The line between folklore and popular culture is certainly not as clear as it might be, but for my purposes, popular culture consists of items introduced to a folk group from without (via television, music, books, etc.) whereas folklore arises organically from within the group that uses it
So, while cycles can blur the line between folklore and pop culture, especially once you throw in the concept of internet folklore, they’re still of interest to folklorists. It’s as though by paying attention to cycles, we have our scholarly fingers on the pulse of the people. Sometimes the people we study use humor to cope with tragedy, or respond irreverently to grim circumstances. But this is all part of the human experience, and hence worth knowing.
Dundes, Alan. Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 1987.
Foote, Monica. “Userpicks: Cyber Folk Art in the Early 21st Century.” Folklore Forum 37.1 (2007). PDF here.