We all know what dirty jokes are. They are the ones that you don’t; tell your mother (hi Mom!), or post on social media where your supervisor might see them (good evening Professor Wilder, and anyone that will make future decisions about my professional life!).
Like this one:
Want to hear a dirty joke?
John fell in the dirt.
Want to hear a clean joke?
John took a bath with bubbles.
Want to hear a dirty joke?
Bubbles is a hooker.
The overarching theory of comedy for at least a century is the asymmetry theory. From Joseph Boskin’s book, this states that humor results from the resolution of two asymmetrical meanings.
In the case above, asymmetries are between; dirt-as-in-soiled and dirt-as-in-illicit, bubbles-as-soapy-things and bubbles-as-a-sex-worker, innocence and NSFW-content. We could go on.
In The Humor Code, the authors explain another emerging theory of humor—a theory of benign violation. This explains that humor happens when transgressions are made safe. They use the example of Sarah Silverman being able to get away with incest jokes because she’s just so darn cute. This is also how bigots often justify hate-speak. They say, “Oh lighten up, it’s just a joke!”
In the dirty Bubbles joke, the transgression is in being with a hooker, and it’s made acceptable by the context of an innocent bubble bath. Another transgression is that the jokes moves back and forth between “appropriate” and “inappropriate” rhetoric.
Consider the next example:
What do you call a chicken that crossed the road, rolled in dirt, and came back?
A dirty, double-crosser.
Sure, it’s a groaner. But it also shows that the theory of acceptable-transgressions need not only apply to transgressive—or dirty—jokes. The chicken joke works because it transgresses from the standard form of “why did the chicken cross the road?” jokes. It’s made acceptable through the logic of puns.
And for a final joke:
Why was the compost upset?
Everyone treated her like dirt!
It is transgressive to anthropomorphize compost. To treat a person-like thing “like dirt” relies on the idiom of “treating someone like dirt” equaling “treat someone poorly.” It’s made acceptable because compost doesn’t really have feelings (even if a previous post might suggest otherwise:
As both a humor of soil geek, this is funny to me, because we would NEVER treat compost the way we would treat dirt! Compost is special, and it keeps dirt happy and healthy! We love you compost, we would never treat you that way…..
The joke makes me sad, too. I envision a pile of compost with big Miss Piggy fake-eyelashes and big, crocodile tears. Our culture does treat dirt like dirt. We hardly know what compost is! We overuse and abuse dirt. We dump crap in it that will never ever decompose or go away.
I wonder, how does the form of transgressive humor help us think through our own transgressive behaviors? Is the idea of making-transgression-acceptable right for a culture that is largely okay with ecological transgressions? I have no good answer. Maybe I’ll learn it all in New Orleans.
In the meantime, this is one of the comedians I’ll be discussing at the conference: