Many years ago at a literary conference in Key West that focused on humor, I heard Billy Collins speak. Comedy, he said, is the dog that leaves the room when you call its name. Collins’s wistful, loving resignation over the elusive nature of comedy has distinguished antecedents. The list of those who have called comedy’s name only to watch it prance off in the other direction, wagging its tail, is long and illustrious, reaching back millennia. Cicero warned that one could “discourse more wittily on any other topic than wit itself.”
Humor is physical, intellectual, emotional, cultural, ephemeral, essential. Puns and riddles and slapstick and satire and dirty jokes and knock-knock jokes, sitcoms and witticisms and clowns—they find categorical constrictions risible. Like physicists, humor scholars seek a unified theory. The linguists Salvatore Attardo and Victor Raskin have tried to propose one, developing Raskin’s Script-Based Semantic Theory of Humor into the General Theory of Verbal Humor. As a field of study, humor is hot.1
Linguists and philosophers and lexicographers are not the only scholars chasing the dog of comedy. There are also historians of humor, who would seem to have an easier task: they’re not expected to discover its essence. They study comedy as it has lived. People have always laughed, in every age, in every part of the world. We even make the same sound when we laugh. Mary Beard points out in Laughter in Ancient Rome, her eloquent examination of classical humor:
Unlike the barking of dogs, the grunting of pigs, or the croaking of frogs—which different languages render in bewilderingly different ways (“oink oink,” says the Anglo-American pig, “röf röf röf” or “uí uí” the Hungarian, “soch soch” the Welsh)—laughter in almost all world languages, and in entirely different linguistic families, is rendered as (or includes within its repertoire) some variant on ha ha, hee hee, or tee hee.
The trouble for historians arises when, like their fellow comedy scholars, they have to explain what the “tee hees” are in response to.
This is a challenge that the Columbia professor and Yiddish scholar Jeremy Dauber has bravely accepted in Jewish Comedy: A Serious History. It is indeed a serious study and most interesting at its most serious and obscure. Dauber sets out one of the basic difficulties of his endeavor in the introduction to the book: “how to define and describe Jewish humor as it’s appeared in all its vast and variegated forms, from antiquity to yesterday.” He offers a straightforward, simple solution: humor produced by Jews and humor having something to do with Jews, regardless of historical period—a sensible corral for a subject that has wandered the world and millennia so extensively. But what ultimately emerges in Dauber’s study is a more dynamic definition of Jewish humor,…
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