Getting the joke

From the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, Rome

From the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, Rome

“He gets the joke,” someone once said of me approvingly.

This is true, and here is one that I particularly like:

Aristotle contemplating the bust of Homer thought often of Socrates while Rembrandt dressed him with paint in a white Renaissance surplice and a medieval black robe and encased him in shadows.

“Crito, I owe a cock to Asclepius,” Plato has Socrates saying after he had swallowed his cup of poison and felt the numbing effects steal up through his groin into his torso and approach his heart. “Will you remember to pay the debt?”

Now Socrates, of course, did not owe a cock to Asclepius, the god of medicine.

And the leather merchant Asclepius, you will find written here, son of the physician Eurymynedes, was as baffled as anyone to learn of the bequest from the slave who appeared on his doorstep in the morning with a live rooster in his arms.

The authorities were curious also and took him into custody for questioning. They put him to death when he continued to profess his ignorance and would not reveal the code.*

A lot of jokes are much simpler, of course, and do not name check philosophers and painters. Some, like one from a comic I watched a week or two ago, involve sharing embarrassing details about masturbation.**

I don’t get all the jokes but I do get The Joke. And The Joke is this: Life is pretty absurd, if you think about it. (It is probably only pretty absurd if you think about it.)

William Beeman, who is probably a lot smarter than me, explains the basic joke:

A communicative actor presents a message or other content material and contextualizes it within a cognitive “frame.” The actor constructs the frame through narration, visual representation, or enactment. He or she then suddenly pulls this frame aside, revealing one or more additional cognitive frames which audience members are shown as possible contextualizations or reframings of the original content material.

Which, in simpler terms, basically means you think things are one way, and then you find out things are actually another way. Which is sometimes how life is. And that isn’t a bad thing or a depressing thing, necessarily. It’s just a thing.

How you take it is up to you. You can, presumably, drink yourself into a stupor at how you have become the cautionary punchline. Or, you can see the situation for what it is: a funny thing that you would be laughing at had it not happened to you. There but for the grace of God go I, and all that. Except, of course, it is you doing the going.

By the grace of God, you’re still alive, though. And that, in itself, is a lot of grace already.

Beeman again: “The tension between the original framing and the sudden reframing results in an emotional release recognizable as the enjoyment response we see as smiles, amusement, and laughter.” Sometimes, you just have to laugh (or masturbate, I guess).

Further reading on this blog on humor in the face of adversity and absurdity: Notes from my brief time as a Hungry Man

*Joseph Heller, Picture This (New York: Ballantine Books, 1988), 3.

**I did not get that particular joke, though. I feel there is nothing really very funny about masturbation, except people’s faces while doing it. 

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