Today it's the turn of writer and philosopher Dr Martin Cohen. Enjoy!
So straightaway, here’s a classic joke to start this blogpost off with:
Three men – a totally bald cook nicknamed ‘Baldy’, a very learned professor called ‘Brains’, and a barber with a thick black beard, were going on a long journey and had to camp out at night. They decided to take it in shifts to watch over their valuables. The barber took the first one, but soon got bored. So to pass the time, he shaved the head of the professor - and then woke him up to take his turn on the second shift. The professor got up, rubbed his head in puzzlement and then exclaimed: ‘What an idiot you are, barber‘ he said, ‘you’ve woken up Baldy instead of me!‘
It’s not such a great joke, agreed – but incredibly, it's one of the oldest jokes around. This, we might say, is a joke with a pedigree. A version of it appears in the Philogelos, or Laughter Lover, which is a collection of some 265 jokes, written in Greek and compiled some 1,600 odd years ago. So it’s old. Nevertheless, despite its antiquity, the style of this and at least some of the other jokes is very familiar, even if they are peopled with different stereotypes. The favourite targets of the authors of the Laughter Lover are the scholasticos, or absent-minded professors, along with eunuchs (men who have been castrated,which apparently was a significant category in those days), people from Abdera (a city in Thrace, on the border of Bulgaria and Greece) and men with bad breath.
'I say, I say, I say ...'
Not tempted? Try this other example, which again, I have lightly adapted:
‘A traveler is staying at a monastery, where the Order has a vow of silence and can only speak at the evening meal. On his first night as they are eating, one of the monks stands up and shouts ‘Twenty two!’. Immediately the rest of the monks break out into raucous laughter. Then they return to new silence. A little while later, another shouts out ‘One hundred and ten’, to even more uproarious mirth. This goes on for two more nights with no real conversation, just different numbers being shouted out, followed by ribald laughing and much downing of ale. At last, no longer able to contain his curiosity the traveler asks the Abbot what it is all about. The Abbot explains that the monastery has only one non-religious book in it, which consists of a series of jokes each headed with its own number. Since all the monks know them by heart, instead of telling the jokes they just call out the number. Hearing this, the traveler decides to have a look at the book for himself. He goes to the library and carefully makes a note of the numbers of the funniest jokes. Then, that evening he stands up and calls out the number of his favourite joke – which is ‘seventy six’. But nobody laughs, instead there is an embarrassed silence. The next night he tries again, ‘One hundred and thirteen!’, he exclaims loudly into the silence - but still no response. After the meal he asks the Abbott if the jokes he picked were not considered funny by the monks? ‘Ooh no’, says the Abbott. ‘The jokes are funny – it’s just that some people just don't know how to tell them!’
I like that one! Clearly, humour is something that transcends communities and periods in history. It seems to draw on something common to all peoples. Yet jokes are also clearly things rooted in their times and places. At the time of this joke, monks and secret books were serious business. But the first philosophical observation to make and principle to note is that both these jokes involved one of those ‘ah-ha!’ moments.
Humour often involves a sudden, unexpected shift in perspective forcing a rapid reassessment of assumptions. Philosophy, at its best, does much the same thing. Which brings me to my current project and the prompt for this blogpost: I'm just finishing writing a book on food and diet called Thin(k)! The Philosophical Diet that, like Stevyn’s new book, is being crowd-funded at Unbound. It’s got a few jokes in it but mainly lots of interesting insights that I think also include a bit of an ah-ha moment: for example, would you believe manufacturers add stealth fibre to food causing bloating and indigestion? Or that white bread is worse than sugar for putting the pounds on? Ah-ha indeed! But it’s no joke. As we all know, per Michael Pollan et al, food has instead become not just a jolly matter for cooks and gourmets - but a huge social, political and ethical issue.
Now the thing about crowd-funding a book, is we need to get readers excited enough in advance to sign up for the book - only then does it get published! So if you are curious, please check out the fun *but informative* little video that goes with my project here, and ‘help make it happen’!