The Joke’s on Us

Irony in the History of Humour

Adversity will always bring on the chuckles. Anyone who has ever spent more than a short while in the Philippines will know that 500 years of plunder by a rapacious elite has been met with smiles and self-deprecating asides. Life just has to go on. And even more abrupt crises draw out the sort of humour that deflects us from thinking that chance alone has saved us from a particularly unpleasant fate. Iceland, you might know, is in deep trouble at the moment, but that might be all you know about it. “What’s the capital of Iceland?” asks Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution. “About $20”.  We joke because it’s immediate – we understand the danger of the situation and are always prepared to laugh at someone else’s misfortune.

That’s the power of irony – the deflection of difficult meaning; saying something otherwise, usually in quite the opposite direction than is expected.

Think, then, of how much irony an author could find in writing a history of Communist jokes. It would not be too ungenerous to suggest that European state Communism was in some sort of crisis or another for most of its relatively brief existence. Central planning, as it turned out, was a nigh on impossible task. Ben Lewis knows this, but it’s not until almost half-way through his Hammer and Tickle that he admits the importance of irony in jokes about the Communist state, that they used statist thinking to criticise state objectives, and even then he doesn’t use the term.

That’s an interesting oversight, because it indicates that jokes seem something other than they were at the time when they’re later placed in historical context. Political jokes, at least, are of the here and now. The funniest joke that Lewis retells – and it pays to realise that his objective is to explain the context of jokes rather than make readers laugh – is a rather generic joke about shortages in Soviet Russia told by a former East German dissident:

A guy is hopping across Red Square. ‘Hey,’ a friend calls out, ‘have you lost a shoe?’

‘No, I found one!’

This might well be the sort of joke they’ll be telling in Iceland next year because its irony escapes history, is always ready to exploit a new situation.

Lewis’ book is a fantastic stroll through verbal resistance to Communism, but of necessity it’s more of the biography of an itinerant joke collector than the history of Communism told through communist jokes that the subtitle declares. It offers insight into how most jokes fall flat when they slide out of context. Irony is so often of its time. Consider this joke from the UK’s Mirror:

How do you define optimism?

A banker who irons five shirts on a Sunday.

The irony is that two weeks ago this wouldn’t have been funny. Its amuses now because a context I don’t need to explain inverts the reader’s usual expectation. In two years it will probably require a cumbersome explanation that will just have to capture the spirit of these times. We laugh hard in the face of adversity, then have to ask why. Now that’s ironic.

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