What’s So Funny?

Rationale of the Dirty Joke: An Analysis of Sexual Humor. First Series

by G. Legman
Grove, 811 pp., $15.00

Some years ago the present reviewer acted as an experimental subject in a research project on the physiological effects of alcohol. He was put into a room alone and made to drink the equivalent of ten sherries in as many minutes and then spend the hours in which he returned to sobriety performing a number of totally uninteresting mechanical tasks. He now feels much as he did then, after having read studiously and seriously more than 2,000 dirty jokes at the rate of some 150 an hour under conditions totally unlike those in which they are ever spontaneously told.

It is, however, not Mr. Legman’s intention to entertain his readers, or even to provide them with a collection of dirty jokes available for use on appropriate occasions, even though the format he has adopted, with the jokes printed in italics so that they can be picked out easily, will enable readers who so wish to use his book pornographically. On the contrary his intentions are serious and honorable, and this book is offered to the public as a psychoanalytical and sociological study.

Mr. Legman starts from the assumption that all humor is aggressive and that the function of jokes, whether clean or dirty, is to enable the teller to get away with an attack on the joke’s victim by getting the listener to connive with him, and to express his connivance by laughing. Since, for reasons which Mr. Legman does not satisfactorily explain, most dirty jokes are told by men and are about women, his central thesis is that dirty jokes are essentially a vehicle for men to express their hostility to women. In support of this theory he quotes Freud’s statement that “The smutty joke is like a denudation of a person of the opposite sex toward whom the joke is directed.”

Although Mr. Legman reports hundreds of dirty jokes to which this formula is applicable, the material presented by him, and indeed the interpretations offered by him, show clearly that hostility to women is far from being the only motive underlying sexual humor. Indeed, immediately after propounding the hostility-to-women theory, Legman himself advances an entirely different, and to my mind more convincing, theory of sexual humor: viz., that it constitutes “the attempt to make understandable, or at least believable, even endurable, if only as a ‘joke,’ ” a “highly-charged neurotic situation” in which the originator of the joke has been forced to live; and furthermore, that the function of humor in general is to reconcile man to painful, unacceptable, and tragic aspects of the human condition. “Sexual humor is a sort of whistling in the dark, like Beaumarchais’ Figaro ‘who laughs so much he may not cry.’ ” Later in his Introduction Legman tells us that his “book has been written almost as often in tears as in laughter.

One type of humor exemplifying this principle is the masochistic joke, in which the butt or victim is the joker himself. According to Legman, many Jewish jokes are…

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $99.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

One-Week Access — $4.99

Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.