Elliott Oring on his book, Joking Asides

Interview by Emily Bianchi


Emily Bianchi: I was wondering what brought you to write Joking Asides: The Theory, Analysis, and Aesthetics of Humor, your fifth book on jokes? I thought you might talk about your affiliations with humor studies and where it all began.

Elliott Oring: Where it all began was with my dissertation in folklore. This gets to be a long story, but I’ll try and make it short. I was crossing campus one day and encountered Richard Dorson, and Richard Dorson said, “The deadline for a Woodrow Wilson is coming up very shortly. Why don’t you put in a proposal?” I hadn’t thought about this. I wrote this lengthy proposal over the weekend to go study folklore in Israel, the kind that arose there as opposed to the kind that people brought from the various countries that they came from. It would be on something like native as opposed to imported immigrant traditions. Anyway, I wrote the grant. I got the grant.

When I got there, I found my project was wildly elaborate and undoable, and I encountered a professor there who taught in the summers here at Indiana University. He was Israeli and taught literature. He said, “You know, there’s this tradition among these old timers who were in the Palmah (which was the name of a military underground that operated in the forties) and they have this tradition called the Chizbat. You might want to look into that.” So, I looked into that. I wound up writing my dissertation on it, and that’s my first book: Israeli Humor: The Content and Structure of the Chizbat of the Palmah. I didn’t go there looking for humor, particularly.

That’s how academic careers go. You have no idea what you’re going to get caught by, but, once I was in it, I was in it. 

I developed a course that I occasionally taught called “The Ethnography of Humor.” I taught it once here [at IU] in the summer in 1977. During the class, I said, “Somebody should really look at the jokes of Sigmund Freud” because we read Freud’s book on jokes. Somebody should really look at the relationship between the jokes he uses and his own personality, his own character. Well, I wound up doing that, so that was the second book: The Jokes of Sigmund Freud: A Study in Humor and Jewish Identity. Those were the two monographs. All the other books have been collections of essays.

Emily Bianchi:The essay format worked well for this one. It allowed you ask about and examine many different aspects of jokes.

Elliot Oring: I like the essay form: you get in, you have a specific point, you try and illuminate something, and you’re not padding. You don’t have room to pad it with all sorts of stuff, you know? Then you can go on to another question. So, for me, it’s all about questions, and I still have questions. I still have a lot of questions about humor.

Emily Bianchi: Throughout Joking Asides you caution against applying a priori theory to jokes and instead promote generalizations that emerge from the studies of the materials themselves. Of the many potential ways forward you explore in these different essays, you suggest that attention to “appropriate incongruities” may be one of the most comprehensive as a broadly applicable structure of meaning that underlies humor—one step towards discovering what it is that needs to be explained in a theory of humor. What do you find compelling about appropriate incongruity theory?

Elliott Oring: To me, it’s one of the most persuasive theories for a couple of reasons. And it is persuasive. If you show me a joke, I’ll find you the incongruity, but that, in itself, is not proof. You know, one can find in anything what one is looking for.

The first thing to note is that appropriate incongruity is simply my conceptualization and terminology for an old theory of humor which is incongruity theory and sometimes called incongruity resolution theory. I can point to antecedents going back to the 17th century. John Locke, in passing, makes a comment about the difference between wit and judgment which is very much in keeping with this. The Scottish Enlightenment figures of Francis Hutcheson at the beginning of the 18th century and James Beattie at the end of the 18th century elaborated it a little more. They state, pretty much, what an incongruity theory of humor looks like. It’s gone on since then. It didn’t stop in the 18th century. It’s been revived in the 20th century and even somewhat in the 19th century. That’s the first thing: appropriate incongruity has antecedents.

Second of all, incongruity theory tells you what a joke is. It doesn’t tell you what a joke does. Many other theories explain what a joke does but not what a joke is. Take Freud’s theory (at least as Freud is often interpreted) that joking is a way to get rid of, relieve, suppressed impulses. If you want to talk that way, there are many things that could relieve those impulses, so there’s nothing particularly strange about a joke when you come to it. Many of the other theories (take superiority theory that really stems from a comment by Thomas Hobbs in the 17th century that laughter emerges from a sense of a superiority in ourselves as opposed to someone else or as opposed to our sense of ourselves in the past) describe a function, but don’t describe what humor is. Incongruity, for me, is the theory that really explains what humor is.

You know, you want to describe a hammer: it’s got a shaft, it’s got a heavy weight at the end. Whether you kill someone or build a house with it, those are its functions. But it’s not what it is, you know? So I think you need to start with what you think the phenomenon is that you’re actually dealing with. That’s the attraction to me of incongruity theory.

Emily Bianchi: You offer appropriate incongruities up as one way forward that is still in need of testing and revision. How do you think promoting and applying appropriate incongruity works towards an understanding of what jokes are and how they work, or a theory of humor?

Elliott Oring: One of the things you’ll see is that I’m constantly analyzing jokes. You can read a lot of books where they’ll give you a joke example, but they don’t really take it apart. I think if you want to move towards a theory of humor, you better be looking at the things that you’re talking about. Whether it’s jokes or other forms of humor, you have to take them apart to see how they work. Ultimately, that’s where I start. Whether my analyses of the jokes are convincing… and that’s an important part of what I’m doing. If they’re not convincing, then I’ve got a problem.

Appropriate incongruity, as I said, is not really a conceptually new idea. And in fact, rooted in it is a problem which I think I identify at the very end of this book: what constitutes appropriateness and what constitutes incongruity? So, the questions are how much different does something have to be before it’s incongruous, and what kind of connection between two things is sufficient to establish that it’s appropriate? I can’t answer that question. In other words, if appropriate incongruity is useful, it’s useful to take apart jokes. As a theoretical formulation it’s somewhat problematic because I can’t operationalize its basic terms.

In an essay that’s not in this book, I criticize the general theory of verbal humor. People are looking to get computers to be able to recognize jokes. The way they operationalize incongruity (although they don’t say it this way) is to see it as “opposition.” Opposition is a very big term in linguistics. You know, the difference between this phoneme and that phoneme. There’s voicing or absence of voicing, or this is aspirated, or this is not aspirated, so they can make charts of pluses and minuses. Linguists are very easily drawn to plus and minus formulations. But to talk about an opposition in a joke is very difficult, because everything is opposed to everything else. A subject is opposed to a predicate, a verb is opposed to a noun, an adjective is opposed to an adverb, an adult is opposed to a child. What kind of opposition becomes significant enough and salient enough to be considered the basis for a joke?

Now the fact that I can’t answer this, by the way, is, well, it’s a failing, but it’s a failing of the larger field. That’s why we’ve been talking about this stuff for 2,500 years. We don’t know the answer to it! Humor is a mystery to a great extent. All I’m trying to do is poke at it and see when it moves or if it’s dead. And you can’t always be sure. Possums, you know, look very dead, and you can poke them and they continue to lie there. So, who knows?

Scholarship is a matter of putting your two cents in. That’s really what it’s all about. And maybe sometimes you’ll put in your two cents, and you will get change because that two cents really pushed something over the top and saw something new. I’m not sure it’s going to lead to a new theory of humor unless we figure out how to operationalize it. And I’m all for getting computers to recognize what is a joke text and what is not a joke text, but, as I’ve written in another article, I’m very suspicious that they’re going be able to do it with the concepts that they’re working with at the present time.

Emily Bianchi: You are critical of some established theories of humor, using the material to point out their benefits and flaws. You also charge people to create new hypotheses and then test them. I think that this does probably come out of the format of the book as essays, but you’re trying to, like you just said, to poke the jokes and see how and when they respond. You are advocating for an approach to the scholarship by suggesting appropriate incongruity as one hypothesis that needs to be tested further, but you’ve created a few other testable hypotheses within the book as well.

Elliott Oring: First, I set out to try and answer a question, and whatever helps me answer that question in a convincing, persuasive, and hopefully testable way is what I’ll use. I use what’s available, which we should. I’m also very leery of those people who when a new theory pops up in some other field immediately apply it to their material. I understand it for a number of reasons, but really what we should be doing is seeing how well or poorly it helps to explain. You can always find something that some general statement applies to. The question is how well, how far does it extend, and where does it fail? Folklorists generally don’t take a critical point of view, especially to stuff coming from elsewhere. They’re very happy to evangelize for the latest thing coming out of linguistics or literature or philosophy, or what have you, never stopping to acknowledge that folklore provides the data to test these kinds of conceptions that are coming from every which way. Let’s see how good they are in really helping to understand what’s going on. I think that lack of criticism is a problem. 

Offering up the notion of hypotheses is old, not new. It’s gotten new because everybody seems to have forgotten that there was a time when people did talk about hypotheses, even in folklore. In the sixties and seventies, there’s a group of essays in the Journal of American Folklore, particularly, where people actually do talk about hypotheses and testing them.

Then people got into the interpretation of humor and of folklore in general which was motivated largely by a 1965 article by Alan Dundes, “The Study of Folklore in Literature and Culture: Identification and Interpretation.” Since then, people have been interpreting this stuff. But how do you know your interpretations are on point? How do you tell? How do you test whether this is what people are actually communicating when they tell a joke or tell a fairy tale or sing a song? How do you know? It might make sense. Your interpretation might put certain things together. It might be interesting. But is this what’s actually being communicated?

If folklore is to make any progress, I think, if you’ve want an interpretive approach, you have to be able to subject it to some kind of critical apparatus. Without that, we’re reading poems and interpreting them, which is fine, but that’s not what we claim to be doing in the field of folklore.

Emily Bianchi: In your chapter, “Demythologizing the Jewish Joke,” you discuss some of the potential pitfalls of a purely contextual, performance-based ethnography of speaking jokes. I am sure that linguistic anthropologists and folklorists will be interested to hear more about what you perceive to be the limitations of the ethnography of speaking for scholars of humor.

Elliott Oring: I do have a big question about the contextual, and I’ve been critical of the overly contextual because where does that lead us? All I can do is study one particular encounter between a performer and an audience and analyze its dynamics to say this is why the speaker used this phrase or introduced this story or had this aside. If it doesn’t go beyond the context that I’m reporting, where are we, and what have we learned in a more general way? What does folklore have to contribute? Are we going to simply be a field that describes the trillions and trillions of individual encounters between performers and audiences? I hope not.

We have to move to a more generalized conception of what’s going on that’s applicable beyond the particular context. That’s why I’ve often made comments about the microscopic analyses that come out of performance approaches. They remain microscopic. It’s kind of like early natural history. We’ll describe this beetle. We’ll describe that beetle. We’ll describe this beetle. We’ll have three descriptions of beetles, none of which particularly pertain to one another until somebody like Darwin comes along (and I don’t think we’re going to have a Darwin… though it would be nice) to tell us what else is going on. I think we always need to move to more general statements.

Somebody reviewed this book. It was a positive review, but finally they got to the last chapter and said, “At last, fieldwork,” because it was based on recording people. My feeling is, what is so special about field work? Yeah, we have to do it. What we study is interactions and performances, but if that’s where it stays, we don’t have a field at all. We have to use that field work to say other things. And if we’re not saying the other things but simply resting on the idea that we did field work, then that’s a fetishization of fieldwork. If we’re going to make a contribution to knowledge, what is the knowledge that we’re producing other than these little, microscopic analyses of individual performance events? So that’s my problem with context.

I want to know what’s going on when people are joking and not just joking in a specific situation but, in general, joking. And not maybe only in this culture but in a number of cultures. Is something similar happening or are they all so different that they are not comparable?

I think people have steeped themselves in the performance approach and lost sight of the larger questions that folklorists should be concerning themselves with. It’s nice to say this text was decontextualized from here and recontextualized over here, but that’s merely descriptive. It’s not explanatory and, even if it is explanatory, you say the person was trying to accomplish a certain thing within the event or within the communication, so he employed that particular text. But then where do you go? You’re stuck in that context.

I’m not against context, obviously. Communications take place in context and much humor can’t be understood without context because you’re making jokes about the context. So, I’m not against context, but ultimately it doesn’t lead to more general principles. Or, I haven’t seen it lead to more general principles which bothers me.

Emily Bianchi: This is your fifth book on humor, and you’ve characterized your interest in humor as a career long preoccupation. What about jokes do you find most compelling? You invoke many other scholars who have looked at jokes but not cracked their codes, and you say that something that you still find so compelling about jokes is that despite centuries of scholarships…

Elliott Oring: … we don’t know what the hell is going to help! Yes, it’s amazing that jokes, something so essentially despised from an academic point of view… we don’t know how they work. We don’t know. We can’t precisely define what it is that makes something humorous. We don’t understand why that if you accept the idea that it is humorous, we laugh at it. And we’re sitting here for 2,500 years and we haven’t the foggiest.

The last thing is, and this would be true of all folklorists probably who study whatever they study, they find them compelling and beautiful. I find many jokes beautiful. They are brilliant. That’s a word I could use for any number of jokes–not all jokes. You know, the conception and how they twist your mind to move from X to Y; they’re just brilliant. For the person who loves quilts, for the person who loves folk songs, for the person who loves Shaker furniture and gardening. Folklorists are compelled by the materials, first and foremost. Then they get into the people or they get into the questions surrounding the material, but the material is, I think, what draws them first. In that sense, they’re materialists, even though they would claim not to be. But if folklore is to be a serious intellectual endeavor, it cannot simply rest on folklorists’ admiration and celebration of their materials. Folklorists must ask penetrating questions and make serious attempts to answer them.

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