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Author and Joke Expert Jim Holt Practices His Insult Comedy on Vulture

Photo: Hannah Whitaker

For a story in this week’s magazine, Jada Yuan attempted to match wits with New Yorker talent Jim Holt, author of Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes — and failed miserably. It was a lively conversation filled with ribald jokes, pithy comebacks, and more than a few personal jabs. As always, there was scant space to publish all the worthy bons mots in the magazine’s pages, so we’ve cobbled together the best of the rest for you here. (For the record, Vulture would like to refute Holt’s claim that Jada is both humorless and uneducated. She is neither, though her laugh does have a trace of strangulation to it, as any good laugh should.)

So I have to admit I only read 74 of 160 pages.
You missed the humorous index!

Wait, you’re telling me I have to read the index, too?
The index is good! It’s better than the text. You may even find yourself in the text. Look under A for “Assholes.”

How about U for “Unamused.”
I have a knock-knock joke for you.

Who’s there?
I done up.

I done up who?
You smelly thing!

Well, you’re a cold audience! Haven’t you reached your two-drink minimum yet?

Nope. So, what was the last joke you didn’t get?
I don’t remember a joke I didn’t get, but it may be because that possibility is so painful for me to contemplate that if it happened, I repressed it. There’s nothing worse than failing to get a joke, because on one hand you’re deprived of the enjoyment of the joke and on the other hand you reveal yourself to be a dunce. Back when Dan Quayle was V.P., a friend of mine went to a White House luncheon with a bunch of other reporters and the reporters were telling jokes. Dan Quayle seemed completely nonplussed — one joke after another would pass and he didn’t react at all. And every once in a while, he would start laughing, several seconds after everyone else had started laughing, meaning he got the joke, and then he would explain the joke to everyone else. I am the anti–Dan Quayle.

That said, this book isn’t really an anthology of jokes. There’s a lot of theorizing and historical research.
It began when The New Yorker asked me to write a history of jokes and I thought, Can you write a history of jokes? Is the joke a thing that has a history? Jokes don’t necessarily fossilize well. And there was a period when, evidently, jokes weren’t told. It’s the fast pace of life with commercial culture in cities. So in non-urban periods of history like the Dark Ages jokes simply aren’t told.

Maybe they didn’t joke because they were miserable.
No, you joke when you’re miserable. Haven’t you heard of gallows humor? The question is, Are we telling the same jokes through the century and the millennia, or does every generation invent a new kind of joke? And it seems more the former than the latter. I noticed a joke turn up on Curb Your Enthusiasm that was the exact same joke I found in a collection from the fourteenth century. And I’m fascinated with the phenomenon of laughter. It’s weird. If you were an extraterrestrial anthropologist and you came to Earth, the first thing you’d notice is that when people are communicating in language, every once in a while one or both of them will stop and emit this spasmodic chest-heaving cackling sound. What is it all about?

How would you describe my laughter?
Rather forced. Pinched. It’s more like the sound being made by someone in the throes of strangulation. It’s mirthless. No inner jollity. Also a bit priggish.

Okay. So who’s in your pantheon of comic geniuses?
I have to say I like Sarah Silverman a lot, but I suspect that’s a taste that’s hard to defend. She leans too heavily on scatological humor, which I deplore. I can’t watch the NBC Nightly News because they have ads for stool softener. I like the old Friars Club humor, the really nasty mutual roasting. “Abe Vigoda just walked in. His testicles will be here in fifteen minutes.” “His underwear are federally protected wetland.”

Given the subject matter, why’d you use so many fifteen-cent words in the book? Seems a little highfalutin.
Well, the rule of freelance journalism is to relieve dullness of matter by oddity of expression. There are falsely colorful words that I object to. Words I would never use. You probably use them all the time. In fact, I know you do. I’ve read your stuff. Maven, pony up, belly up, as in “belly up to the bar,” moniker, movable feast, scarf, shenanigan, skullduggery, gimlet eye, braggadocio, newfangled, dickens, tipple. Anyway. English has a wonderful vocabulary, and I’m doing my best to keep the interesting parts alive. But I agree. The language is a little florid. I like my tropes and exotic phrases and Mandarin expressions and epigram shavings.

And you used the word “exiguous” in the introduction.
It was a way of saying, there’s not quite enough here for a book, that some people will say it’s exiguous, but those are the people who probably don’t know what exiguous means! I’d love to hear your biography and come to understand how you came to work for such an august publication without apparently any higher education. —Jada Yuan

The Other Joker: Jim Holt [NYM]

Author and Joke Expert Jim Holt Practices His Insult Comedy on Vulture