by Jim Holt

W.W. Norton


142pp/$15.95/July 2008

Stop Me If You've Heard This
Cover by Hinterland

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Jim Holt has explained that he took an assignment to write about the history of jokes from the New Yorker, figuring it would be an easy assignment. What Holt discovered was that there was a lack of any studies into the history of the joke.  His article, therefore, required more effort than he expected and, making lemonade from lemons, he decided to turn his research into a short study of the history of jokes, Stop Me If You've Heard This.

The book is divided into two sections.  The first traces the history of the joke from its legendary creation by the Hellenic figure Palamedes through the ages until he reached modern joke collection compilers like Alan Dundes.  The second half of the book looks at the philosophical underpinings of jokes:  what makes us laugh at jokes.  Although Freud forms a basis for this discussion, Holt does not fall into the Freudian camp, but rather looks at the points of view of a variety of historians.

Both sections of the book have their strengths and weaknesses.  In the first section, notably, Holt's history could be strengthened by the use of footnotes, or at least a bibliography.  As it is, the reader is often left wondering if Holt is trying to have his own joke with the information he includes.  Although Palamedes is claimed as the originator of the joke, Holt notes that the oldest surviving joke collection dates to the Roman Empire, nearly twelve centuries after Palamedes would have lived.  The rescuer of the joke, however, is the Renaissance writer Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini.

Another problem with this history, as Holt notes, is that jokes are essentially an oral tradition and people must have been telling jokes in order for Bracciolini to have collected them. Holt, himself, proves how oral jokes are by including several jokes in his text, and the words written starkly in black print on white paper lose much of their humor. In this regard, Holt only looks at the words that make up the joke.  He never discusses the other important aspect of  Timing is as essential to a joke, if not more so, than the actual words.

In the philosophy section, Holt examines what philosophers think causes the underlying humor of the joke.  Holt is clear that a single philosophic underpinings may not, in fact, be possible, as there are different types of jokes. Perhaps the most likely explanation for jokes is that there is a dichotomy between the expected and the unexpected.  The revelation of that dissonance is what causes people to elicit an essentially involuntary response (a laugh or a groan). As with the first section of the book, Holt ignores things in this section.  While he looks to professional philosophers for their view of jokes, he ignores a category that Mel Brooks referred to in his film "The History of the World, Part I" as "stand-up philosophers."

It would seem that the one class of people who have worked to understand the philosophy of a joke to the extent that they have internalized it, would be comedians, and perhaps, comedic screenwriters.  However, Holt does not appear to have read or interviewed any of these people.  Such an examination would not only have added depth to the book, but also would have given it a feeling of greater completeness.

Stop Me If You've Heard This is an interesting, if too short, book. Holt offers intriguing glimpses into the history and ideas behind jokes, but the reader can't help but wish for more than Holt seems willing to provide.  Both sections of the book could benefit from an expansion of the ideas that that Holt provides.  Instead, Stop Me If You've Heard This is more of an introduction to the subject rather than attempt to fully explore the history and ideas behind jokes.

Purchase this book from Amazon Books 

Return to

Thanks to
SF Site
for webspace.