January 18, 2007

Why ethnic humor is funny

Here's a little piece I wrote back in 1999 (so the examples are pretty dated):

The subject of humor is a notorious black hole for serious theorizing. Nonetheless, I'd like to plow ahead and discuss ethnic humor, even though I am almost incapable of remembering specific jokes except the most embarrassingly awful stinkers.

Clearly, there are a lot of different kinds of humor -- Steve Pinker of this list does a fine job of discussing in "How The Mind Works" the kind of humor (often pun-based) that changes the frame of reference: e.g., "Q. To raise money, why don't girl scouts sell brownies?" "A. Because as much as girl scouts might want to, the 13th amendment prevents them from selling their little sisters." [For non-Americans, "Brownies" are junior Girl Scouts.] (Note, Steve's chapter includes much better examples of that kind of joke, but I can't recall any of his.)

Most ethnic humor, however, is a subset of the "observational" humor that is currently dominant in the entertainment marketplace among Americans with 3 digit IQ's: e.g., the kind of Harvard Lampoon-derived gag-writing behind The Simpsons, Letterman's Top 10 lists and many sit-coms like Seinfeld.

I would suggest a very simple evolutionary model for accounting for the appeal of this kind of pattern recognition humor. Noticing similarities and differences is one of the fundamental methods of gaining knowledge about the world. As the motto of the college in Animal House puts it, "Knowledge Is Good," or to be less moralistic, knowledge is useful because it allows us to make more accurate predictions about reality, which allows us to make better decisions. Down through prehistory, people who made better decisions propagated their genes more than people who made lousier decisions.

For observations to be funny, however, they can't just be true, they need to be more vivid and memorable than plain truth. Thus, as a mnemonic device joketellers exaggerate truth to the point of logical absurdity. Laughter, then, would be a form of brain candy that natural selection has devised for us to make us enjoy learning patterns.

Ethnic humor falls into two classes: "Polish jokes" and "stereotype" humor. The former is the (now thankfully fading) American version of a nearly universal phenomenon of telling jokes about stupid people (another universal phenomenon) and giving the role of the idiot to a member of another ethnic group: "Q. How many Poles does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" "A. Three, one to hold the bulb and two to turn the ladder." The latter ("stereotype humor") is of a more closely observed sort that actually has some bearing in reality to traits that correlate with the group: "Q. How many lesbians does it take to screw in a lightbulb?" "A. That's not funny!"

Polish jokes: There is an obvious evolutionary benefit to having humans reflect upon and laugh at stupid ways to do things. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly (due to kin selection), we often try to claim that idiotic acts are an attribute of some other ethnic group than our own whom we dislike. (I always wondered why, of all the ethnic groups in America, there were all these nasty jokes about one of the most inoffensive of all immigrant groups?)

Stereotype jokes -- "Observational humor" also dominates stand-up comedy today, which is now largely concerned with pointing out the differences between the sexes and ethnic groups. We've entered the new golden age of ethnic humor, with members of each group pointing out its own foibles: e.g., Chris Rock (black), Margaret Cho (Asian), Jeff Foxworthy (redneck), screenwriter Paul Rudnick (gay male), and of course a million Jewish comedians. The new unwritten rule that only members of a particular group are allowed to make fun of it works relatively well, except for a few notably prickly and politicized groups like lesbians. This lack of honest, self- observant stand-up comedy among lesbians contributes to the bizarre assumption found constantly in the mainstream media that lesbians and gay men are very much alike, when in truth they are among the least similar groups imaginable. (See my article "Why Lesbians Aren't Gay" for a table of several dozen differences). Thus, you can learn more about race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc. today from watching late-night HBO comedy series like Chris Rock, Tracey [Ullman] Takes On, and Arliss than from reading New York Times editorials.

"Serious" journalists tend to believe that "funny" and "serious" are by definition mutually exclusive, when an evolutionary perspective would suggest that much of what is funny to us is funny because it's serious.


My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

32 comments:

Grumpy Old Man said...

Interesting point, but why are essays on humor usually so un-funny?

Hank said...

I always wondered why, of all the ethnic groups in America, there were all these nasty jokes about one of the most inoffensive of all immigrant groups?

Maybe because Polish jokes are popular with Jews and Jewish comedians?

Alex said...

Steve, why the need to undergird pieces like this with evolutionary pop-psychology? I'll believe in kin selection when anyone can explain to me what the hell it actually involves. Otherwise, good show as usual.

Miles said...

Was it, I wonder, Germans or Jews who fomented the myth that Poles on horseback charged the invading Nazi tank divisions?

Anonymous said...

Laughing is interesting because it's so close to crying - even neurologically (MRI scans show), if I recal.

Humor is also one of those thing that requires "deep" cultural knowledge. (I.e., you have to understand what the words and images mean in a complex, nuanced way and probably "feel" them too).

Polish jokes might go back to some kind of German vs. Polish feud. Poland kept its medieval-like peasant areas longer than Germany did, so it probably made for some cultural contrast.

Liam said...

Humor is also one of those thing that requires "deep" cultural knowledge. (I.e., you have to understand what the words and images mean in a complex, nuanced way and probably "feel" them too).

Too deep for me, man. I just laugh if some dude slips up and falls on his arse.

James Kabala said...

I always assumed that Polish-Americans became the victim of Polish jokes in part because of our obscurity and inoffensiveness compared to other turn-of-the-century immigrants. Italians had their own set of stereotypes revolving around the Mafia. Obviously Jews can't be stereotyped as stupid, and although modern-day Greece has not produced too many geniuses (probably fewer than Poland with Copernicus and Marie Curie), the memory of Plato, Aristotle, and the rest is too strong to associate Greeks with low intelligence. So who was left? The Poles. Memories of the liberum veto and the dismemberment of Poland in 1795 probably also contributed to the image of Poland as a place that couldn't get its act together.

Anonymous said...

It could be, too, that the evloutionary value of humor results from its being a tool of ridicule (defining and discouraging ridiculous behavior). When the smartest man in the world jumps out of the plane with the backpack, we learn not to have smartest man in the world pretensions. To me, the funniest (i.e. best learned, most memorable) scene in idiocracy contrasted the procreating 2005 white trash with the noncreating upper IQ couple. Both were held up for ridicule, in their way. Ethnic jokes by nature point up differences (inspiring routine ridicule reflex).

agnostic said...

Comic View on BET is a great place to mine for data on HBD. Some well known stereotypes are there, but there are also ones that apparently Af-Ams only tell around other Af-Ams. Some you can understand why: they make fun of how altruistic and/or over-trusting Whites are, while the more "me first" and incredulous Af-Ams play it better safe than sorry in dangerous situations.

Others aren't. For example, Af-Am comics always make fun of how White parents never discipline their kids, especially using force; how at the first sign of something wrong, Af-Ams make a bee-line for the exit while Whites hang around to investigate what's wrong; and how silly Whites are to do things like bungee-jumping, sky-diving, etc.

Anonymous said...

and, following my ridicule comment, it's a commonplace that comedians are insecure. insecure people seem always either to be wounded by some perceived slight, or else criticising/attacking/bringing down the people around them. the wounding half of this coin makes comedy, with its emphasis on ridicule, a natural forum for the insecure.

Thursday said...

"Serious" journalists tend to believe that "funny" and "serious" are by definition mutually exclusive, when an evolutionary perspective would suggest that much of what is funny to us is funny because it's serious.

Its not just journalists. Poor Woody Allen got himself sidetracked for years trying to make "serious" films. But does anyone believe that a pseudo-Bergmanesque sogfest like Interiors has more wisdom about the human condition than Annie Hall or Hannah and Her Sisters. Allen's comic films are his serious films.

Adam said...

There was nothing serious about Bananas or Sleeper. It's been a downward spiral since Zelig.

Thursday said...
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Thursday said...

I would add that the depreciation of comic art has a long history, both from critics and artists themselves. Its not just Woody Allen. Shakespeare's rival Ben Jonson had a great gift for comedy is pieces like The Alchemist and Bartholemew Fair, but that wasn't good enough for him, so he ended up straying from his gift and giving us embarrassingly bad work like Sejanus, His Fall.

There are numerous examples where comic art has been denigrated by critics. Aristophanes doesn't have the prestige of Sophocles. Boccaccio is often been thought of as merely a writer of dirty stories. Ariosto has been dismissed as a lightweight compared to Petrarch and Dante. The comic aspects of Chaucer and Cervantes have been played down by critics. (Unamuno tried to turn Don Quixote into Christ, just like W.H. Auden tried to do with Shakespeare's Falstaff.) Montaigne thought Rabelais to be merely light reading and Rimbaud thought he was crude and worthless. The great critic Samuel Johnson thought little of contemporaries Fielding, Smollett and Sterne while praising the only unintentionally funny Richardson (read Pamela and then Fielding's Shamela). Balzac and Dickens were originally thought of as mere popular writers rather than artists. Chuck Jones was long thought of as just a maker of kiddie cartoons.

Part of this is due to the fact that translating comic writers is a lot harder than translating more serious writers, so they don't travel around the world as easily. Even when there are good translations, their serious aspects still come across better in the other language.

Also, I'd expand on Grumpy Old Man's point to say that it is also really hard to write good criticism of comic writing, so it isn't done as much and, when it is, it is more likely to be rather boring. So critics play up more serious authors.

Thursday said...

Steve has commented here on the absurdly low score of Jane Austen in Charles Murray's Human Accomplishment. Steve put his finger on part of the reason:

". . . Murray’s rankings may be slightly unfair to female artists because they are less likely to have brilliant followers. My wife, for example, was incensed that Jane Austen finished behind the lumbering Theodore Dreiser and the flashy Ezra Pound. Yet, these men probably did have more influence on other major writers. That’s because subsequent famous authors were mostly male and thus less interested than the female half of the human race in Austen’s topics, such as finding a husband."

I would add that it is notorious in the literary world that Jane Austen doesn't travel. Despite her legions of fans in the English speaking world, she has been a virtual non-entity on the Continent. I would guess that a good part of this is because she is primarily a comic author with both a very feminine and a very English sense of humour. Because she is a comic author she is already inherently harder to translate. Add her femininity to the mix and the mostly male, mostly heterosexual corps of translators is far less likely to understand her art and be able do it justice. I would also add that because she is a female with female interests, she is also less likely to attract the best translators who being mostly male are more likely to be interested in other authors.

This brings up a more general point about whether Murray's tables are somewhat unfair to comic writers. For perfectly understandable reasons, Murray relied on sources outside the writer's own language to do up his tables. But because humour is so much harder to translate than more serious writing, a comic author's reputation outside their home language may be much less than their actual accomplishment.

Anonymous said...

on Thursday's point, it could be that the level of intellect informing both comedic and "serious" work of some artists is the same, but comedy benefits because self-consciousness/self-seriousness on the part of the artist doesn't creep in as much. I've always felt that the formula for good art in all areas is genuine novelty, emotional rather than intellectual content, and a lack of evident self-consciousness on the part of the artist. self consciousness is often a simple marker that the substance of the art is not compelling enough to make it disappear, but it is undoubtedly a quality worsening distraction as well. Woody Allen is an unusually good example of intellectualism and self-consciousness conspiring against the end result, but far from the only one.

Anonymous said...

The first time I saw Lost in Translation (at the Clark St. art theatre) I was completely flabbergasted. The lack of clever plot turns, etc., the soft delivery, was so...foreign. I later realized this was because, in contrast to virtually every other film (with male writers, directors, studio execs, etc.), its perspective was entirely feminine. Well now I'm all for girl made art. not because it's some kind of feminist validation, but because its fresh and novel.

With her novels going unpublished for so long, Jane Austen was able to sit around and edit and perfect them for years. No matter how many times you've read pride and prejudice, it's just a very alert read no matter where you pick it up again. Significant self-editing also contributes to quality of art. I think it's funny that Charlotte Bronte was so dismissive of Jane Austen, when what she mostly offered was overthought, portentous intellectualism that helped put everyone on the wrong path for 200 years. Will check the book to see where she comes in.

Anonymous said...

The first time I saw Lost in Translation (at the Clark St. art theatre) I was completely flabbergasted. The lack of clever plot turns, etc., the soft delivery, was so...foreign. I later realized this was because, in contrast to virtually every other film (with male writers, directors, studio execs, etc.), its perspective was entirely feminine.

Yet, despite the feminine perspective, the movie had a couple flashes of female nudity that weren't in any way essential to the plot line - a lingering closeup of Scarlett Johanssen's (or her body double's) posterior in semi-transparent panties, and then a couple topless women at a strip club.
I don't know if this was a way of making some sort of woman-centric "statement" or just a way of appealing to male viewers.

Peter
Iron Rails & Iron Weights

Thursday said...

Perhaps the best example of gay humour there is is Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Its pretty long, but as I once wrote on my blog, "it is a dumbfounding masterpiece, well worth the inordinate amount of time you will have to invest in it." After finishing it I have to second Christopher Hitchens' reaction (I don't often agree with him), "I wish it was longer."

Unfortunately, the humourous aspect of the novel is sometimes obscured in translation for the reasons listed above. However, the Baron de Charlus is such an incredibly funny character, that not even translation difficulties can get in his way. The portrait of his descent from young aesthete and dandy to aging queen is one of the best things ever done in all of literature.

Proust has a really high reputation among other gay writers like Edmund White and Richard Howard, but he was absolutely unsparing, much to the chagrin of at least some gay activists, including his contemporary Andre Gide, author of the sincere, but rather boring, defense of homosexuality Corydon. Even White has some reservations.

As for you heterosexual males out there, Proust has an unfortunate reputation as a flowery writer who appeals only to snobs and aesthetes, something the languid pictures of him on book covers do nothing to dispel. However, the actual book is a very well written, often very savage critique of both snobbery and airy aestheticism. So don't be put off.

Thursday said...
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Thursday said...

The best gay joke I know comes from that old Roman Catholic bachelor Ronald Firbank, who has one of his (female) characters pray: "O God, let me be decorative and good."

Bruno said...

I think that it is an American thing that you can joke about your own kind, but be careful about finding other ethnic/racial groups ridiculous or funny. You may be called a racist (especially if you are white)! This attitude is never questioned,but is it reasonable? Why do we accept this principle without question?

Anonymous said...

Peter said "despite the feminine perspective, the movie had a couple flashes of female nudity that weren't in any way essential to the plot line - a lingering closeup of Scarlett Johanssen's (or her body double's) posterior in semi-transparent panties, and then a couple topless women at a strip club.
I don't know if this was a way of making some sort of woman-centric "statement" or just a way of appealing to male viewers."

Neither, although the panties shot is available as a movie poster from amazon and I do have it. The pink panties, which aren't particularly erotic, are consistent with the whole feel of the movie: soft, feminine. The strip club scene provides a contrast in attitude which better defines Charlotte's own perspective: soft, feminine.

Jerri Lynn Ward, J.D. said...

"[For non-Americans, "Brownies" are junior Girl Scouts.]"

Not precisely. Brownies are age 6-8. Jr. Girl Scouts are 8 to 11.

I distinctly remember this.

Steve Sailer said...

"it's a commonplace that comedians are insecure. insecure people seem always either to be wounded by some perceived slight"

An old boss of mine once had dinner with the famous comedian Jackie Mason around 1995. He said Mason was the most depressing dinner companion he ever had -- he spent the entire meal complaining about how Ed Sullivan had wrecked his career for 10 years or so for making fun of him on the air in 1963.

A few comedians, like Bob Hope and Jay Leno, appear to be the opposite -- psychologically and physically bulletproof, but Mason isn't too unusual.

Anonymous said...

Dull factoid of the day: Small girl scouts are also called Brownies in the UK (not just the US). The youngest cadre are called Rainbows in what I fear maybe a paen to diversity.

James Kabala said...

I thought in Britain Girl Scouts were called Girl Guides.

Anonymous said...

Girl Guides, indeed they are James. I was using the term Scouts for the benefit of Americans - there we are - Lost in Translation!

Eric said...

I once went on a school trip abroad where four of us roomed together, three palefaces and an Indian kid. One night we told him just every about black joke we knew and he was literally cracking up. It would have ruined the party if he'd known many of them were originally Paki jokes.

God knows, what they say about us behind our backs :-)

Bonnie said...

Does anyone out there remember a bit with Steve Allen (he was a guest host, it may have been the Tonight Show or Dick Cavett), where he was interviewing a young Polish man who was crusading against the telling of Polish jokes? Every time the man would tell a Polish joke, Steve Allen would try to contain himself, but ultimately would lose it, pounding his hand, and later his head, on the desk. It was brilliant theater, almost excruciating to watch (although the jokes were hilarious), and it wasn't until after the young guest stormed off and then returned, that you knew that it was a bit. My mother and I have been mentally replaying this for 30 years, and would love to find a clip of it. Does anyone have the details?

Media Review said...

See www.PolishAmericanReview.com for origin of "Polish jokes"

Media Review said...

The origin of subhuman intelligence jokes about Polish people is Nazi German propaganda. It was ironic and a shame that Hollywood and NBC-TV imported these subhuman intelligence jokes about Polish people into the US without telling the American people their Nazi German origin.

See www.PolishAmericanReview.com