Everyone loves a good joke, right? Except for when you’re the butt of it. Folklorists have been studying jokes as part of our academic study of expressive culture for decades now, and we’ve always claimed that jokes are serious business, for all that they can range from funny to cruel.
We consider jokes to be a distinct genre of folklore, often verbal (but not always – think of pranks), that exhibit the characteristics of folklore: they’re transmitted in traditional, informal ways, and show variation along the way. But they’re also, importantly, humorous, often intended to make people laugh. Who’s laughing at whom, though, is an entirely separate question!
When it comes to the form, or structure, of jokes, a few types stand out. Some jokes are classified as folk narratives, that is, they tell a story, in prose. Among the major folk narrative genres, jokes fit best under folktales, which are fictional formulaic stories. As in, nobody actually believes that a priest and rabbi walked into a bar and had that same conversation in real life, or that a horse or duck walked into a bar to order a drink. Traveling salesman jokes are a great example of this type of joke, as are dialect jokes. The shaggy dog story is another type of narrative joke, with horribly long and ridiculous run-on plots, often ending in a terrible pun.
Other jokes are not told as stories, but rather in question-and-answer format. Jan Brunvand calls these “riddle jokes” and notes that they “come and go in fad cycles, usually centering on a single theme while they last” (123). Examples include the little moron jokes of the 1950s up through political and disaster cycle jokes. These jokes point at the timeliness of folklore: we didn’t have light bulb jokes before the invention of electricity, obviously. And no one’s telling Dan Quayle jokes anymore, because they’re simply not relevant.
Still other jokes are visual or pictorial in nature, meaning we don’t consider them a type of verbal folklore at all. One example would be the line drawing of a lightbulb that, when turned upside down, looks like someone bending over from behind. Accessories for pranks might also be considered a form of material culture (whoopie cushions, anyone?), while the act of playing a practical joke or prank on someone would be more in the customary realm of folklore (things people do, rather than things people say or make). April Fools Day pranks are an especially interesting area of study, because they can tell us just how far is too far to go with humor.
I especially like to talk about jokes as exemplary of the characteristics of folklore – tradition and variation – because almost everyone knows jokes, and can easily picture these principles in action. As Lynne McNeill writes: “If I tell you a joke, and you turn around and tell it to someone else and the details change a bit, you didn’t tell it wrong, you just told a different version of it” (8).
Further, studying jokes helps demonstrate the importance of context in folklore transmission and performance. McNeill points out how “that dirty joke’s punchline might still be told, but in a whisper rather than a shout, depending on who’s around when you finally get your friend to tell it” (24). Here, we see the distinction between natural and artificial contexts for folklore: in a natural (or unprompted) context, people are just doing their thing, telling jokes and stories or whatever, whereas in an artificial context, a folklorist or ethnographer has solicited the material. As you can imagine, these different contexts can impact how the folklore text is performed in that moment, just as there are many “natural” contexts that might also influence the delivery (telling dirty jokes at a family gathering in a whisper so an elderly relative doesn’t hear vs. telling dirty jokes at a bar).
Jokes also illustrate social norms through their content, as many jokes are founded on stereotypes: about gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, occupation, religion, and more. Jokes are also a way of perpetuating stigma, and looking for patterns in which topics are acceptable to joke about can reveal societal stigmas. It’s (apparently) okay to make fun of certain marginalized groups when you’re in the dominant group; I’m thinking of jokes about people of color, immigrants, sex workers, and sexual assault survivors, who are all quite stigmatized by and vulnerable to the policies of the mainstream. Speaking out against these forms of humor often nets one the accusation of being humorless (bonus points for being called a humorless feminist).
While scholars are still debating why people tell jokes at all, the idea that they’re an outlet for repressed anxieties or taboo concerns is still pretty popular (for an alternative view, see Elliott Oring’s work on jokes). Dating back to Freud, Alan Dundes explains this view as
“Where there is anxiety, there will be jokes to express that anxiety. A society with political repression will generate an abundance of political jokes. Indeed, the more repressive the regime, the more numerous the political jokes. In the United States, we have relatively few orally transmitted political jokes. Why? Because we have a relatively free press. It’s easy to hear or read editorials lambasting political figures on a daily basis; we have little need for oral political jokes” (vii).
Indeed, I would suggest that one of the reasons for all the jokes around sex and sexuality in the U.S. right now is that it’s one of the major hurdles we face in this country, in terms of the deeply-ingrained sexism, heterosexism, and transphobia that exist culturally and pervasively. The intersection of folklore and sex, which was one of the topics Dundes inspired me to study, is hopefully one of the major contributions I’ll make to scholarship and society more generally.
Finally, I’d like to point out that jokes which are actually metafolklore – folklore about folklore – can yield valuable information about stories and ideas that have become traditional over time. Dundes relays the following example of a metafolkloristic joke:
It was a dark and stormy night and this guy goes up to this old farm house. He’s a salesman and he says to the farmer, “I’m a salesman, my car broke down, and I need a place to stay.” And the farmer says, “That’s all right, but there’s just one thing, we have no extra rooms to spare so you’ll have to sleep with my son.” And the salesman says, “Oh my God, I must be in the wrong joke.” (in Bronner, 82).
Dundes interprets this joke in the following way:
“One might find, for example, that the substitution of homosexuality for heterosexuality is particularly significant in the light of our culture’s taboo against homosexual activities. The mere suggestion of such activities to a traveling salesman, the epitome of unrestrained heterosexual impulse, is so shocking as to call a halt to the story. In other words, at the very mention of homosexuality, the American male wants out because this activity is ‘wrong’: the salesman is in the wrong joke” (in Bronner, 82-83).
Thus, examining metafolkloristic jokes can tell us which beliefs have solidified into stories enough to be parodied, which points us in the direction of embedded commentary about appropriateness and social norms.
Jokes are a treasure trove of data about cultural values, power, marginalized identities, and more. To that end I believe we should all bring a hefty dose of awareness to our encounters with the humorous, and see what’s left when the laughing stops.
Bronner, Simon, ed. and intro. The Meaning of Folklore: The Analytical Essays of Alan Dundes. Logan, Utah: Utah State University Press, 2007.
Brunvand, Jan Harold. The Study of American Folklore: An Introduction. Fourth edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998 [1968, 1978, 1986].
Dundes, Alan. Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humor Cycles and Stereotypes. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press, 1987.
McNeill, Lynne S. Folklore Rules: A Fun, Quick, and Useful Introduction to the Field of Academic Folklore Studies. Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 2013.