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Where Do Jokes Come From? Funny You Should Ask

Is there anything as unfunny as trying to explain humor? If you need to have a joke unpacked, chances are humor is lost on you. Flying in the face of this wisdom, New Yorker staff writer Jim Holt has assembled this amusing little meditation on jokes through the ages, from the Greeks to Gary Shandling (credited with the funniest quip ever: "I went to my doctor and told him, 'My penis is burning.' He said: 'That means somebody is talking about it.'")

At just 141 heavily illustrated pages, Stop Me If You've Heard This is a literary equivalent of a three-minute stand-up routine — quick, uncomplicated and circular — for good reason. Few jokes are actually new. Holt traces schoolboy flatulence gags back to the Greeks and Wall Street-boss cracks back to the New Testament. "Nobody ever tells jokes for the first time," proclaimed the late critic and folklorist Gershon Legman, one of the humor fiends Holt turned up in his research.

Holt does a fine job parsing different theories of laughter — from how it relieves inhibition to the idea that it lets us beat on superiors. But Legman and his fellow humor hounds steal the show. According to lore, Legman invented the '60s slogan, "make love, not war," got Anais Nin a gig writing dollar-a-page erotica for an Oklahoma collector, made his literary debut with a book on oral sex, and was so poor he wore a rope for a belt. (Read about Legman and other early fathers of joke-ology.)

One of the tart pleasures of Holt's survey is learning how many serious sorts cared about humor. Poggio Bracciolini, secretary to eight Renaissance popes, wrote the first European collection. Freud studied jokes, as did lugubrious philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Each one took a whack at explaining why those 15 muscles on our face flex and why we convulse in respiratory spasms.

No one has succeeded — including Jim Holt, a failure that triumphantly and entertainingly proves his point: What's so funny about humor? Ask again and someone's going to laugh at you.

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John Freeman
John Freeman is the editor of Grantamagazine. A former president of the National Book Critics Circle, his criticism has appeared in publications around the world, including The Guardian, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Book Review. His latest book is The Tyranny of E-mail: The Four-Thousand-Year Journey to Your Inbox.