Identity Is an Inside Joke

I got one for you: It’s 1990, and there’s this group of 27 people who go to a six-week law enforcement leadership course in Ottawa. The first day, the newly elected class president announces that at the start of class each day, he wants someone to tell a joke. The president is from Newfoundland, and so he leads by example—basically, a Newfoundlander finds a genie in a bottle and is granted two wishes. His first wish is to be on a beach on Tahiti, which the genie grants immediately. For his second wish, he says, “I don’t want to work no more.” Instantly, he finds himself on the streets of Sydney, Nova Scotia, a town known among Canadians for its high rate of unemployment. Everybody laughs. This is a pretty funny joke.

This is also a good move by the Newfie class president. These people come from different cultures and different economic backgrounds. They have different religions, most but not all of them are cops, most but not all of them are Canadian, and most but not all of them are male. The Newfie joke does a couple things. First, it shows who he is. He’s a guy who can laugh at himself. He’s not a prick. Second, it gives all these people from all these different backgrounds at least one thing they can all laugh about. They’re all employed. The class starts to figure out who it is one joke at a time.

LAUGH OUT LOUD: In Moppentoppers, a popular show from the mid-1990s, contestants competed to tell the funniest mop, a short, humorous anecdote leading to a punchline. RTL 4

“The judgment of whether something is funny or not is spontaneous, automatic, almost a reflex,” writes Dutch sociologist Giselinde Kuipers. “Sense of humor thus lies very close to self-image.” Humor also takes on the shape of the teller’s surroundings: age, gender, class, and clan. Shared humor implies shared identity, shared ways of confronting reality. When we don’t get a joke, we feel left out; when we get a joke, or better yet, tell the joke that everyone roars

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