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Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes Hardcover – July 17, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

A complete history of the joke and its philosophical motivations will perhaps never be written, as Holt admits that the joke is not an unchanging Platonic Ideal, but a historical form that evolves over time. Holt, a contributor to the New Yorker, tries anyway, tracking the joke's evolution from the oldest surviving joke book, the surprisingly blue Greek text Philogelos, to Freud and Kant in explaining how and why we laugh at jokes. The book's second half occasionally lapses into dryness; even Holt suggests that the more interesting a subject is, the more boring the accompanying philosophy. In examining two overlooked aspects of a common joke, Holt presents some illuminating thoughts—jokes evolve more than they are created; they are an ideal way to expel pent-up aggression—and fascinating fringe figures such as Gershon Legman, the controversial and pioneering dirty-joke archivist who saw himself as the keeper of the deepest subcellar in the burning Alexandria Library of the age; the subcellar of our secret desires, which no one else was raising so much as a finger to preserve. Highly readable, Holt's effort will appeal to the intellectually curious, and the jokes are pretty funny. (July)
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Explodes the myth that the high and low brow are more than a couple of inches apart....Seriously funny stuff. -- Colin McGinn, author of The Making of a Philosopher

Fast-moving, idiosyncratic...a stocking-stuffer. -- The New York Times Book Review

Finally, I understand what it is I've been laughing at for all these years. -- Jimmy Kimmel

Holt...takes in so much about the history and philosophy of joke-telling in his concise and amiable conspectus of the subject. -- Joseph Epstein, The Wall Street Journal

Jim Holt manages here to be deadly serious and perfectly hilarious at the same time. -- Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the US

Jim Holt riffs in Stop Me If You've Heard This. -- Vanity Fair

Small, witty, and delightful...a worthy successor to Harry Frankfurt's brilliant On Bullshit. -- Simon Blackburn, The New York Sun

The truth behind the glamour. -- Fran Lebowitz

Viewed through Holt's complex, concise lens, the joke comes off as a contender for humankind's most profound mode of expression. -- Elle

Witty and engaging...This is a very funny tale and it produces some marvelous and unlikely heroes. -- The New York Review of Books

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 160 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; 1St Edition edition (July 17, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780393066739
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393066739
  • ASIN: 0393066738
  • Product Dimensions: 4.8 x 0.7 x 7.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #954,549 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

28 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Bart King on July 25, 2008
Format: Hardcover
This is an erudite and clever book, hence the five stars. I'd expect nothing less from author Jim Holt, whose work I've enjoyed immensely before. But as much as I liked Stop Me If You've Heard This, my enjoyment was, of necessity, short-lived.

At less than 7-by-5 inches in size, this is a smallish book. It's also a slender one. If you subtract the index, credits, and bibliography, it has 126 pages of material. Now subtract the 24 illustrations and you're down to 102 pages of text.

At this point, one notices the book's colossal margins, and how humankind's entire "history of jokes" is covered in 41 pages. In fact, this section is as much about joke collectors throughout the ages as the jokes themselves.

But all is forgiven in the book's second half ("Philosophy"), wherein Holt really shines. In addition to providing a variety of jokes types, there are also a number of worthy theories regarding their origins, classifications, and ramifications. In short, this is the part of the book where you'll laugh.

To sum up, while I anticipated a hardcover book, what I got was a bound copy of two essays. These were, respectively, good and most excellent. But imagining a bookstore shopper paying this book's list price of $15.95 makes me a little uneasy. While I was happy to avail myself of the on-line discount, perhaps the publisher could have taken this book's price point more... seriously?

*Finally, as to "Kalamazoo!", it is Holt's submission for the shortest joke in the world. (You'll have to read his explanation on pp. 79-80.)
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Blaine Greenfield on September 1, 2008
Format: Hardcover
PHILOSOPHY OF JOKES by Jim Holt reminded me of many papers
that my students submit . . there seems to be 142 pages, but after
you subtract a bibliography, credits and an index, you are down
to 126 pages . . . take away another 24 pages for illustrations,
and you're down to 102 pages in a smallish 4.5 x 7 format with
very wide margins.

However, don't be put off by what seems to be a lack
of material . . . what is presented is interesting, as well as fun . . . and
you'll learn perhaps more than you ever wanted to know about such
individuals as Gershon Legman (the encylopedist of the dirty joke), Nat
Schmulowitz (the most prodigious joke collector of all time) and Alan
Dundes (the "joke professor" of Berkeley who saw a sinister side
in elephant jokes).

I kid you not about the latter . . . as the author notes:

* It is no accident that elephant jokes appeared around the beginning
of the civil rights movement, he said. Consider the parallels between
the elephant and the white stereotype of the black: the association
with the jungle, the potential for violence, the idea of unusually large
genitals and corresponding sexual capacity. "You can see this even
in the seemingly most nonsensical jokes," he said. "Why did the
elephant sit on the marshmallow? So he wouldn't fall into the cocoa.
That reflects the white person's fear of blacks moving into his
neighborhood--they're trying to sit on the white oasis in the chocolate,
so to speak. This joke was being told at a time when even liberals felt
anxious about the effects of integration." I confessed to Dundes that
I found his interpretation a tad, well, oversubtle.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 5, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Jim Holt, a columnist and contributor to the _New Yorker_, collects jokes, and the shortest among them is two words: "Pretentious? Moi?" It is fitting that he has included it in his book _Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes_ (Norton), for his own book is tiny, and despite its brevity, it succeeds in delivering its intended history and philosophy just as well as the two-word joke delivers a smile. It might seem strange that jokes should be a subject for philosophical enquiries, but consider how central they are to the human condition. Sit down at a dinner party, and a good deal of the conversation will be directed at putting together strings of words that will elicit laughter from the hearers. Another reason jokes ought to be considered food for philosophical thought is that philosophers through history have indeed speculated about them, and have come up with answers about why jokes are funny, but none of the answers is complete or completely satisfying. Another reason to study the history and philosophy of jokes is that when one does so, one necessarily gets to read lots of jokes, and Holt's little volume does contain plenty of good ones.

The book is divided into two parts, necessarily "History" and "Philosophy". There were jokebooks of the ancients, since Plautus refers to their existence in his comic plays, but only one has come down to us, the _Philolegos_ ("laughter lover") from the fourth or fifth century C.E. The jokes in it are peopled with stock characters like the miser, the drunk, and the sex-starved woman. "How shall I cut your hair?" a talkative barber asks a customer. "In silence!" comes the retort.
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