In one of my favorite science fiction short stories ‘Jokester’, Asimov tackles the concept of humor in human beings. He observes that there is a limited set of jokes that provoke genuine laughter in us and the origin of these jokes is shrouded in mystery. When was the last time you made up a truly funny joke or laughed at an original joke? Original jokes or puns typically invite groans, not laughter.
Aside from the origin of jokes, another aspect of humor puzzles me. In most jokes we laugh at either another’s incompetence or suffering. Do you recall a single joke about a smart man, a happy marriage or an understanding wife? Why do we find these negative stereotypes funny?
I used to think it might be a cultural thing. Indians set great store by destiny, which might explain why it is easier for us to laugh at problems rather than alleviate them. The tendency to poke fun at other people’s stupidity may be because of the frog-in-the-well mentality inherent in so many of us. Then again, Indian men are traditionally used to subservient women; ridiculing an assertive woman might be the outcome of an unconscious desire to maintain this status-quo.
However, after moving to the US, I discovered otherwise. In my new workplace, we have a fun joke-of-the-day session at the end of our morning meetings and our boss, who randomly hands out the joke-telling baton to anyone in the team, impishly picked me for the first day’s joke. I was flustered, to put it very mildly. This was the first time I was interacting with ‘foreigners’. I found it difficult to understand their accents and figures of speech, their culture was very different from mine; how was I expected to know what they would find funny?
I hunted hard to find a suitable joke with no cultural references and prayed that they would like it. To my great surprise, they loved it! Later the Indians in our team experimented with jokes that had some cultural connotations and we even introduced them to the concept of a Sardarji joke which they found very funny! And yes, our boss (whose wife, incidentally, is also in our team) regularly tells the nagging-wife kind of jokes that have the entire team laughing uproariously.
So now I am sure that the habit of poking fun at others has nothing to do with Indian culture. I am back to square one, and still have no answers to my questions. (Perhaps Asimov hit on the right explanation in the ‘Jokester’? (You can find out what I am talking about here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jokester_(short_story). I would suggest you read the actual story too.)
In the meanwhile, any better explanations out there?
Disclaimer: I mean no offence to the Sardarji community at all. All the Sardarjis I know are really smart and wonderful people and I have difficulty understanding why they are made the butt of such stupid jokes. But the jokes are there and the Sardarjis themselves seem to be sporting enough to enjoy them, so why not have a little fun?