Stop Me If You’ve Heard This: A History and Philosophy of Jokes, by Jim Holt (Norton, 160 pp., $15.95)

Jim Holt’s compendium of japes, one-liners, dirty stories, and aphorisms is what megabookstores refer to as an Impulse Item. These sit in shelves near the checkout counter, where customers can impetuously buy the little volumes on their way out. Stop Me If You’ve Heard This attempts to provide something for every reader. Those interested in oldies-but-goodies can find such classics as “When I was born I was so ugly the doctor slapped my mother.” Those searching for Sigmund Freud’s favorite Jewish jokes can locate the account of the man who found a speck of food in another’s beard. “I can tell what you had to eat yesterday.” “Well, tell me.” “Lentils, then.” “Wrong—that was the day before yesterday.”

And a better one from the late raconteur Myron Cohen: “A Jewish grandmother is watching her grandchild playing on the beach when a huge wave comes and takes him out to sea. She pleads, ‘Please, God, save my only grandson! Bring him back.’ And a big wave comes and washes the boy back onto the beach, good as new. She looks up to heaven and says, ‘He had a hat!’”

Tired of ethnic jokes and racist wisecracks? What about a group no one ever kids about: “How do you protest when a Unitarian family moves into your neighborhood? You burn a question mark on their lawn.”

Holt is an equal opportunity anthologist. For the right, Ronald Reagan’s definition of liberalism: “If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. If it stops moving, subsidize it.” For the left, a critique of the Iraq War: “How many neocons does it take to screw in a light bulb?” “None—President Bush has announced that in three days the light bulb will be able to change itself.”

Sometimes Stop Me opts for the low road. Comedian Garry Shandling: “I went to my doctor and told him, ‘My penis is burning.’ He said, ‘That means somebody is talking about it.’” Other times it aims higher: “In some languages,” said the Oxford philosopher J. L. Austin, “a double negative yields an affirmative. In other languages, a double negative yields a more emphatic negative. Yet, curiously enough, I know of no language, either natural or artificial, in which a double affirmative yields a negative.”

“Suddenly, from the back of the hall, in a round Brooklyn accent, came the comment, ‘Yeah, yeah.’”

There are unintentional jokes: During World War II, one headline read BRITISH PUSH BOTTLES UP GERMANS.

There are jokes about professions: “Angry guy walks into a bar, orders a drink, says to the bartender, ‘All agents are assholes.’ Guy sitting at the end of the bar says, ‘Just a minute. I resent that.’ ‘Why, are you an agent?’ ‘No, an asshole.’”

There are even gags about gags: “A priest, a rabbi and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender says, ‘What is this, a joke?’”

Still, the biggest laugh in this collection is its price tag. The mini-tome is 142 pages, including the index, and those pages are smaller than the ones in the Reader’s Digest. Yet the publisher demands $15.95. If you spend so much on so little, the joke’s on you. If you read it while standing in line—and you can—and then return it to the shelf, the joke’s on Norton.


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