27 March 2024


A young graduate who had read English at Oxford, and with whom I was corresponding, once referred to jokes about ageing. Certainly they are common.

The first thing one notices about them is that they all depend on the implicit or explicit introduction of ‘other people’ into the situation. In some way or another, they all say, ‘I am living out a life-cycle as other people have done before, or as my contemporaries are also doing now.’ I do not think you could make a joke out of being the first or only person to find himself enmeshed in the conditions of mortality.

Two questions arise: what makes this reference to the widespread occurrence of mortality funny, and how is one to account for its sedative effect? (Plainly, the effect of the joke is one of reconciliation to the situation, rather than a spur to action.)

Freud would no doubt claim that the funniness arose from the reference to an underlying anxiety. The behaviourists would no doubt say that a thing was funny if accompanied by the action of laughing. I don’t feel particularly enlightened by either suggestion. There is only one nonsane joke: it is about attempting the impossible. It is extremely hilarious, but I do not think that it resembles any form of sane funniness. There is one other existential form of laughter: this is the laughter of relief. Again, I cannot feel that it sheds light on sane humour.

I will hazard a guess why sane people make jokes about growing old. What the joke means is ‘I am as degraded as everybody else, but at least everybody else is as degraded as I am.’ This is funny in the same way that other references to one’s concealed hatred of other people are funny, and it explains why the joke functions as a sedative. (‘At least I can see everyone else rotting at the same time I do; at least I can hear them screaming while I’m being tortured myself...’)

Come to think of it, does not all sane humour depend on references to one’s concealed hatred of other people? My studies of the Reader’s Digest certainly suggest this. ‘Human relationships’ seem to consist of continual reminders that your ‘friend’ sees you as identified with your most degrading limitations. (But loves you just the same, of course. That is, he wants you to be like that.)

Extract from Advice to Clever Children, pp.74-75.