Try this one out at the office.

A panhandler approaches a man on the street outside a theater. The man declines to give anything, saying, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be–William Shakespeare.”

The panhandler replies, “Fuck you!–David Mamet.”

Is this a funny joke? That depends on several variables, according to University of Chicago professor Ted Cohen, a specialist in the philosophy of art who’s written a book called Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters. The joke’s success rests on the skills of the teller and whether the listener knows anything about Mamet.

Jokes, says Cohen, are complicated social transactions that can establish intimacy. If a joke works, the shared laughter “is the satisfaction of a deep human longing, the realization of a desperate hope,” he writes. “It is the hope that we are enough like one another to sense one another, to be able to live together.” But if a joke fails, it can highlight an area of division.

“I understood a few years ago that a joke is a very small, compact work of art,” says Cohen, “and most of the interesting questions about art are all questions about jokes: How are they put together? How do they work? What does it mean that people care about it? Why is it that some people can make them and some people can’t?”

Cohen, who’s taught at the U. of C. for 32 years, comes from a joking family–his father used to save snowballs in the freezer to throw at people in July. These days Cohen collects jokes from friends all over the world. His book is filled with lightbulb jokes, elephant jokes, jokes fit for kindergartners, and one so offensive his friends questioned whether he should include it. There are Polish jokes, jokes about the fornicating priest, “guy walks into a bar” jokes, and jokes based on esoteric knowledge of mathematics or famous logicians. Cohen says no one can agree which are the best.

“There’s no consensus to it all,” he muses. “But again, it’s no different than art. What’s deeply interesting to me is not the question are some of the jokes really objectively better than others. I’m interested in what it tells me about the people, why they like this joke better than that. That’s what art is really all about. It’s about getting to people. When you find out that it gets to them but not to you, you realize there’s something different about you you weren’t even aware of.

“The hardest thing to do–and the possibility of human life depends on it somehow–is being able to fully recognize that you’re different than other people without thinking it makes you better than other people. It’s very difficult to avoid thinking of all these differences as failures on somebody’s part. Think about what that means. There’s some joke that made you laugh so hard that tears came to your eyes–and there’s somebody else, who you know well, who was completely unmoved by it. How can that be?”

Cohen acknowledges that many people, including himself, believe that some jokes on some occasions (and maybe some jokes on all occasions) are in bad taste and morally objectionable. The offensiveness of the joke can depend on who is telling it, who is hearing it, and the vulnerability of the targeted group. But Cohen says it’s difficult to say what’s wrong with offensive jokes. Take this one: The thing about German food is that no matter how much you eat, an hour later you’re hungry for power. Cohen says he can enjoy the joke without believing that all Germans are power mad, and he’s suspicious of the kind of arrogant “moral governor” who objects to certain jokes because although he’s not influenced by them, others might be.

He’s noticed a decline in joke telling in recent years, though he’s not sure of the cause. Maybe people are worried about giving offense. That’s too bad, says Cohen, who believes that joking, in general, is a good thing. Though he isn’t prejudiced against people who don’t like jokes, he feels sorry for them, as he feels sorry for people who are tone-deaf. “It seems to me there’s a human dimension that they don’t have. And I’m sure glad to be myself, and not them.”

Cohen will sign Jokes Wednesday at 7 at 57th Street Books, 1301 E. 57th (773-684-1300), and next Monday, November 8, at Great Expectations Bookstore, 911 Foster in Evanston (847-864-3881). He’ll also moderate the U. of C.’s annual “Latkes vs. Hamentash” debate, this year titled “The Latke Hamentash Symposium of the Millennium,” at 7:30 on November 23 at Mandel Hall, 1131 E. 57th. The debate, in which academics argue over which food is superior, is free. Call 773-752-1127.

–Mary Wisniewski

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eugene Zakusilo.