by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves

A lot of very serious people have written a lot of very serious things about the humble joke.

Freud thought they subconsciously revealed suppressed sexual desires – but then he would – while Nietzsche believed they were an acceptable demonstration of cruelty. Certainly jokes can be used to bring people together, or drive them apart; challenge preconceptions or reinforce them; diffuse tense situations or cause them, as the Danish Mohammed cartoons so fatally proved. A joke is never as simple as just having a laugh, at least not to anthropologists, pyschologists and social commentators.

In this well-researched book, Jimmy Carr and old university friend Lucy Greeves, now an advertising copywriter, take a brisk but fascinating tour through all the often-contradictory theories surrounding comedy – and conclude that gags are a lot more important than we might give them credit for. Not only is life a joke, but joking is a vital part of life.

Analysing comedy is, of course, full of pitfalls. Charlotte's Web author E.B. White famously compared it to dissecting a frog – ‘few people are interested, and the frog dies.’ So lest things get too po-faced, the Naked Jape is liberally punctuated with around 400 of the best jokes ever written, one at the foot of every page, plus a selection of longer gags buffering the chapters. It’s means this part social studies, part joke book – with a bias towards Carr’s own work, of course.

Carr certainly takes his gags seriously. There’s always been an almost scientific rigour to his one-liners, precision-made and tested under strict laboratory conditions for optimum performance. You probably couldn’t write jokes like he does, or at least not at such a prolific rate, were you not fascinated by their inner workings.

He certainly has great respect for gags. He has previously countered controversy in his act with the simple yet unapologetic defence: ‘It was a joke’, the implication being that the need for a good line to be told triumphs over any offence that may be taken. But it’s clear from this immensely readable book that there’s never anything ‘only’ about joking.

The volume starts with why laughter is important in the development of both society and individuals, studies how a sense of humour develops in children, and examines the physiological reasons why we chuckle – and the psychological reasons why we have to.

Then it moves on to the formalised environment of stand-up, how people become comedians, how the interaction works – or doesn’t, how every pause and syllable is employed in the service of getting a laugh, why it’s still a male-dominated world and what place bad language holds.

Finally, it’s on to the thorny subject of jokes about race and religion, whether ‘meta-bigots’ can use the cloak of irony to get away with jokes which turned their unreconstructed forebears into comedy pariahs, how jokes can be politically subversive or become considered dangerous, whether it be Lenny Bruce or Jerry Springer: The Opera. In short, it covers pretty much all the issues surrounding comedy now, and puts them in proper context, taking in everything from Shakespearean jesters to humour in Nazi Germany along the way.

Key to it all is that laughter and joking is a social activity, dependant on other people being around and, crucially, on who is telling the joke. It’s why Chris Rock can use material Jim Davidson can’t. To illustrate how laugher lubricates our everyday interactions, Carr and Greeves quote studies that reveal that in normal conversation, the joke-teller laughs more than the recipient. In real life, inconsequential how-are-yous will elicit a chuckle – even though an aspiting stand-up might be advised to do slightly more than that.

The authors repeat Jerry Seinfeld’s comparison of leaping a metaphorical canyon, with the set-up the near cliff and the punchline the far side. If they’re too far apart, the listeners don’t make the leap, too close and the audience casually step over, not experiencing the exhilarating leap.

As they explain the mechanics of jokes, Carr and Greeves illustrate their theses with plenty of entertaining and fascinating examples – such as how ‘idiot’ jokes now aimed at the Irish were originally directed at the Nottingham village of Gotham; tracking down the origin of the phrase ‘shaggy dog story’; and publishing extracts from the music hall book promising ‘2,000 jokes for 1/3’ including such ribticklers as ‘look at ‘er wiv all ‘em buttons on ’er skirt and me ’olding up me trarziz wiv string’.

In the introduction to his 1937 book Enjoyment Of Comedy, author Max Eastman warned readers that as he explained the secret of jokes ‘not only will you not laugh now, but you will never laugh again. So prepare for the impending gloom’.

But The Naked Jape is never in danger of spoiling your enjoyment of a joke. Rather by explaining all the skills in creating a gag, and the vast amount of social, historical and political baggage such an apparently frivolous line must carry, it instils fresh respect in the seeming-humble joke, all the better to appreciate them more.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

The Naked Jape by Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves is published by Michael Joseph at £12.99. Click here to order it from Amazon at £7.79.

Published: 6 Nov 2006

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