Naughty saucy dirty funny

Jim Holt, a longtime contributor to the New Yorker and the New York Times Magazine, is the author of "Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes," just published by Norton.

When a federal appeals court judge who is presiding over an obscenity trial is himself revealed to have a “porn stash” on a personal website, as happened a couple of weeks ago, some might get indignant. Others might titter. But what if it turns out that the judge in question, Alex Kozinski of the 9th Circuit court, is a connoisseur not so much of hard-core porn as of raunchy humor? That the stash was more about laughs than about titillation? Well, in that case, it’s a completely different story. As Kozinski’s wife wrote to a local blogger shortly after the story broke, “Alex is not into porn -- he is into funny -- and sometimes funny has a sexual character.”

Sometimes? Nearly always, according to Sigmund Freud. The whole point of humor, Freud thought, is to get around our inhibitions. Most of us in our daily lives expend a certain amount of psychic energy in keeping our sexual impulses at bay. (If we didn’t, civilization would be rather a mess.) A naughty joke -- whether verbal or visual -- catches our inner censor off guard and liberates these dangerous impulses, if only for a moment. The result is a discharge of nervous energy through the facial and respiratory muscles: in a word, laughter.

So is there anything untoward about a taste for what Judge Kozinski’s wife acknowledged was “raunchy,” “crude” and “juvenile” humor? Not if Freud was right. The very ability to enjoy such humor means that you must be investing a good deal of energy in keeping your animal side in check. You are at least trying to be civilized. A dirty joke is an uprising against the bourgeois morality that enslaves most of us most of the time (and a good thing too). We can rejoice in its defeat only because that defeat is brief and inconsequential. In fact, our laughter itself brings the little uprising to an end. As most of us have discovered, laughter’s a pretty strong anti-aphrodisiac.

There are, of course, those who are so innocent of improper impulses as to be beyond the reach of lewd humor. A while back, shortly after Bill Clinton went on a successful diet, someone cracked, “Clinton’s lost so much weight, now he can see his intern.” This struck me as a pretty good joke, so I repeated it to several of my rock-ribbed Republican friends, thinking that they would enjoy a little mockery of the former president. But the joke left them nonplused. “I don’t get it,” was the universal reaction. To the pure, all things are pure.


And to those of you who find the Clinton joke offensive: Honi soit qui mal y pense (the motto of the Order of the Garter -- which here might be rendered “Shame on you if you know enough to take offense.”)

Sexual humor does not so much corrupt us as remind us that we are already corrupted. Only in modern times has it been feared. The sole surviving joke book we have from the Greek and Roman world, the Philogelos, or “Laughter-Lover,” abounds with sex jokes. Probably put together in the 4th or 5th century, the volume contains 264 numbered jokes, the most haunting of which is surely No. 114, about a resident of Abdera, a Greek town whose citizens were renowned for their foolishness. “Seeing a eunuch, an Abderite asked him how many children he had. The eunuch replied that he had none, because he lacked the means of reproduction. Retorted the Abderite... " The rest is missing from the surviving text, which goes to show the strange potency of unheard punch lines.

During the Renaissance, the leading source of blue humor was a scholar named Poggio who served as secretary to eight popes (and who fathered 20 children, 14 of them with his mistress). His published jokes about randy friars deflowering virgins and the like elicited not a word of condemnation from the Vatican. Presumably, because they were written in Latin, they could be enjoyed by the clerical class without corrupting the morals of the masses. In Shakespeare, the lowest sexual humor coexists with the highest of moral standards; his puns are invariably bawdy.

It was only in the 19th century that the triumph of middle-class respectability brought with it a wave of prudishness that we are still getting out from under. As George Orwell observed, “The modern emphasis on what is called ‘clean fun’ is really the symptom of a general unwillingness to touch upon any serious or controversial subject.”

There is, I should confess, a little kink in the story I have just told. If the Freudian view of humor is correct, the people who laugh the hardest at lewd jokes should be those who are the most sexually repressed, because they are the ones who enjoy the greatest release of energy when they are liberated from their inhibitions. But in reality, the opposite seems to be the case. Research by the late British psychologist Hans Eysenck suggests that the people who get the biggest kick out of sexual humor tend to be the ones who are least inhibited about displaying their randy impulses.

But Freud is not the only game in town. There are two other classic theories of humor in competition with his. One of them is the “superiority theory,” propounded in various forms by Plato, Thomas Hobbes and Henri Bergson, which says that laughter is a way of crowing victoriously over the humiliation of others. This theory works well at explaining the appeal of ethnic and racial jokes, of jokes about gays and drunkards and henpecked husbands and lawyers and women (“Why do women wear perfume and makeup?” goes a classic of this genre. “Because they’re smelly and ugly.”) The superiority theory sees mockery, hostility and aggression at the root of all humor. Morally speaking, it puts sexual humor in a pretty bad light, making it tantamount to verbal rape.

The other time-honored view of humor has a rather sweeter flavor, and a more intellectual one. It is the “incongruity theory,” versions of which were held by Blaise Pascal, Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer, which says that we laugh when the decorous suddenly dissolves into the absurd. “Do you believe in clubs for small children?” W.C. Fields was once asked. “Only when kindness fails,” he replied.

Elements of all three of these theories can be found in most examples of blue humor. But the key ingredient is incongruity. Leave that out, and all you’ve got left is porn, if that. One of the images on the Kozinski website that the judge said he planned to delete -- it was “degrading,” he said, “and just gross” -- was a depiction of women as cows. That’s pure superiority theory, and as obscene as it is banal.


But take this joke, reputedly a favorite of George H.W. Bush: “How do you titillate an ocelot? You oscillate its tits a lot.” Ostensibly, it falls into the category of raunch, with its use of the not-ready-for-prime-time word for breasts and its winking allusion to bestiality. But it is essentially sheer nonsense, a sonic jeu d’esprit. (Compare: “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”)

Such “innocent” jokes, as Freud called them, serve to overcome the adult inhibition against play. Even the primmest of dowagers will emit a reluctant chuckle.

What makes sexual humor funny is precisely the sort of playful incongruity that redeems it from pure lewdness. The dirty joke has been evolving over the centuries, and I like to think that this is a story of progress, with nastiness and filth giving way to the intellectual delight in the absurd.

But we’ve still got a way to go, at least judging from some of the material on the (now defunct) Kozinski website, or from the low scatological humor that remains so popular with kids -- like: “Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Idunnop.” “Idunnop who?” “You smelly thing!”