Besides regaling Chronicles readers with dismaying reports on “the strange death of moral Britain” (the title of the immediate predecessor to the present book), Christie Davies continues his professional pursuits, chief among which is the study of humor.  Jokes and Targets is his fifth book concerned with the subject.  It focuses on six joke cycles, as Davies styles bodies of thematically similar jokes in order to conjure the way such jokes are related or circulated in particular places during particular periods of time.  “The key question to ask,” he claims, “is why this particular set of jokes is in circulation at this particular time in this particular society rather than some other possible set.”

Four of the six cycles are plucked from “the largest sets of jokes that exist.”  They are jokes about stupidity and craftiness, sex jokes, Jewish jokes, and Soviet political jokes.  The other two sets, blonde jokes and lawyer jokes, arose in the United States in the latter decades of the 20th century, Davies says.  Obviously, the sets overlap.  Blonde jokes are often both sex jokes and stupidity jokes, and Jewish jokes and lawyer jokes can be craftiness jokes, too.  Furthermore, the sex jokes Davies considers are subsets of the (unfortunately, one often feels) vast store of such stuff.  Hence, the two chapters concerned with sex jokes are “Blondes, Sex, and the French” and “Sex Between Men: Places, Occupations, and Classes.”  (There are no gay jokes in the latter category.)

Davies places discussions of certain sets of jokes (besides the two chapters on specific types of sex jokes, three others are devoted, respectively, to Jewish jokes about Jewish men and Jewish women, lawyer jokes, and Soviet jokes) between a first chapter and a conclusion, both primarily concerned with a theory about stupidity jokes that Davies dubs “mind over matter.”  He claims his new theory applies to a broader range of stupidity jokes than does the center-versus-periphery theory that he used in works focusing on ethnic and national humor, especially Ethnic Humor Around the World (1990), and partially illuminates craftiness jokes.  What the mind-over-matter theory accounts for in the immense trove of jokes it embraces is the success of knowledge over ignorance, of brains over brawn (or “the flesh”), in everyday life.

“Targets,” the second term in Davies’ title, refers, of course, to the butts punch lines strike.  Except for the targets of stupidity jokes—stupid or ignorant persons—those Davies considers are selected by history, and the histories Davies adduces constitute the meat of the book.  Blondes, we are told, are targets because men in “the Mediterranean and the Middle East” have found them carnally attractive since ancient Roman times.  No great weight of supporting argument is given or, perhaps, needed.  Davies indulges his own sense of humor as he changes the subject—“it is time to leave beauty altogether and turn to the French.”

The supposed lubricity of the French, Davies suggests, is attributable to “small but highly visible groups within French society.”  In the 18th century, the licentious court of Louis XV and the pornography it patronized, which became a lucrative export, gave rise to the myth of exceptional French randiness that the 19th-century boom in Paris’s brothels and consequent sex tourism reinforced, and the experience in France of American GIs in both world wars immortalized.  French sex jokes were a reaction to a 200-year development, to the delight of everyone—including the French, minus the petit bourgeoisie.

The matrix of Jewish jokes, at the expense of Jewish women and of Jewish men as sexual athletes or manly men, Davies traces to anxieties about losing Jewish identity, as the diaspora has placed Jews in societies that, directly or indirectly, encourage assimilation.  Jokes about sex between heterosexual men, he argues, grew up around such same-sex institutions as boarding schools, seminaries, monasteries, and the military (especially the naval service) and the tendencies within these institutions to establish status hierarchies, exacerbated by such modern innovations as long-term imprisonment and class consciousness.  This type of humor, Davies thinks, is not really about sex.

Both remaining joke sets Davies inspects turn out to be nation specific.  The lawyer jokes he examines are invariably about American lawyers, directing their comic thrusts at a national distinction, litigiousness, that has been notorious worldwide since the 1980’s.  As Davies presents them, they are testaments to the legalistic character of American society, which proclaims “‘self-evident’ truths and rights that are not self-evident to anyone else” and roots power “in a hallowed text to be interpreted and reinterpreted, to be revered and to be haggled over by lawyers.”

Soviet political jokes are very obviously historical, reactions to the situation of brutally absurd oppression under which hundreds of millions lived for most of the 20th century.  Rather like Jewish jokes invented by Jews, they functioned as a reassurance of a real community of real people confined in a milieu that negated personalities as well as social realities.

This is a serious book, clearly written (no sociological jargon from this sociologist!), about something that makes no political difference—Davies is very adamant about that—but that is, after all, deeply embedded in us to the extent that we are social creatures.  Joke-telling is comradely or, if you will, friendly.  Even when no one laughs, or when some take umbrage, a joke asserts fellowship, not alienation.


[Jokes and Targets, by Christie Davies (Bloomington: Indiana University Press) 328 pp., $24.95]