Book review: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This

by Jim Holt

At just 124 tiny pages, including illustrations, Stop Me If You’ve Heard This isn’t going to keep you occupied for more than a mid-length commute. But my, does it pack a lot into its stocking-filler size.

The 3,000 years of recorded joke-telling, plus scores of psychological and sociological studies into comedy, have been distilled down into this quirky, fast-paced, fascinating and witty volume, which is so enjoyable it almost leaves you wondering why all books aren’t this brief.

Journalist Jim Holt proves an affable guide through the subject, which he injects with his own chatty and erudite personality as he leaps across geography and time to share an eclectic collection of humour-related trivia, theory and practice. Discussing comedy almost inevitably sounds po-faced, but Holt does it with a delicate touch. He’s clearly a learned man, but is never pretentious, just letting his passion – and that of those previous students of comedy he relies on for his source information – shine through.

The story starts with the author remembering a dog-eared book he found in a second-had book store, Rationale Of The Dirty Joke by G Legman, from which he quotes a few examples. But within four pages we’re in Greek legend with Palamedes, who is sometimes credited as being the creator of the joke, and the Philogelos, a gag book dating from the fourth or fifth century AD.

How have things changed since then? One of the gags in this 1,500-year-old book goes: ‘How shall I cut your hair?’ a talkative barber asked a wag. ‘In silence!’ It’s remarkably similar to a joke circuit stand-up Andrew Lawrence has in his set today…

‘People on the internet today have no idea that the jokes they're trading are hundreds of years old,’ he concludes elsewhere in the book, and there’s plenty of evidence to back it up.

The Philogelos is just one of the texts Holt has uncovered for his work, some more scholarly than others. Jokes good and bad sit next to accessible summaries of the intellectualised discussion about why they work – or don’t. And they’re not all old ones, either, with one-liners by Sarah Silverman, Garry Shandling and Stephen Wright sitting alongside the best the ancients could come up with.

Reading Stop Me If You’ve Heard This is like mainlining an episode of QI, with its dense mix of facts and entertainment. One minute you’re learning that Sir Issac Newton chuckled only once in his life (scoffing at Euclidean geometry) and that the term for such people who don’t laugh is ‘agelast’; the next that the apparently nonsensical elephant jokes that were popular in the Sixties are believed to be racist in origin; the next how Bertrand Russell put down a heckler during one of his lectures on logic.

This book is as condensed, revealing and funny as the best one-liner, and while Holt doesn’t unlock the secret of comedy, which he suggests is unknowable in any case, it’s certainly an amusing and sometimes fascinating diversion.

Reviewed by: Steve Bennett

  • Stop Me If You've Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes by Jim Holt is published by Profile Books, priced £8.99. Click here to buy from Amazon at £5.39.

Published: 4 Nov 2008

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