In a series of posts, Jeff Goldfarb and I have been sketching an outline for the study of the social condition — the predictable dilemmas that haunt social life. We argue that one of the core intellectual missions of sociology is to account for the ways in which social patterns set up these dilemmas that actors experience as crucial for their lives and how they define themselves.

Social life, as anyone who is in the business of living knows, is riddled with ambiguities and contradictions. But these contradictions and dilemmas are not only the stuff tragedies and epics are made of. As importantly, they include materials from which comedy is crafted. If we attend to the structure of humor, we can see that jokes work precisely because they shine light on dilemmas that are built into the social fabric. Thus, one of the core insights of the study of the comic is that it depends on telling two stories at the same time (what Arthur Koestler called “bi-sociation”). Think about the following Jewish Joke:

A Jewish businessman warned his son against marrying a non-Jewish woman, a “shiksa.” The son replied, “But she’s converting to Judaism.” “It doesn’t matter,” the old man said. “A shiksa will cause problems.” After the wedding, the father called the son, who was in business with him, and asked him why he was not at work. “It’s Shabbos,” the son replied. The father was surprised: “But we always work on Saturday. It’s our busiest day.” “I won’t work anymore on Saturday,” the son insisted, “because my wife wants us to go to shul [synagogue] on Shabbos.” “See,” the father says. “I told you marrying a shiksa would cause problems.”

The structure of this joke, like that of most others, is the intertwining and surprising juxtaposition of two stories are told within it at the same time. One narrative is about a Jew “marrying out” and the anxieties and bigotries that “marrying out” entails for many Jewish families—ostensibly, of leaving one’s religion and ethnic group. The second, however, subverts this narrative: It is precisely by taking religion seriously that the “shiksa” causes problems.

Moreover, it is not only that the joke condenses the two narratives. The first way in which jokes are linked to the social condition is that for the joke to actually be funny it needs to resonate with how people experience their world. The reason a joke is funny, as anthropologist Mary Douglas once put it, is because “there is a joke in the structure.” The structure of humor thus brings to the surface a tension that exists in people’s lives. If the joke above is funny, it is precisely because many Jewish families exhibit the tension between actively guarding their ethno-religious boundaries while simultaneously not-quite-following the religious edicts that supposedly define Judaism.

On Humour. Thinking in Action by Simon Critchley © 2002
On Humour. Thinking in Action by Simon Critchley © 2002

Jokes, then, work because they resonate with tensions and experiences that their audiences experience. As philosopher Simon Critchley put it in his study of humor, jokes work through “an oblique phenomenology of the ordinary.” This is why it is so hard to transpose jokes between social contexts—whether in time or in space. Soviet jokes are simply not funny for those who never lived in the Soviet regime; old sitcoms tend to be more puzzling that hilarious.

There is also a second lesson that humor can teach us about the social condition. It is not only that the joke plays on multiple narratives, and that these are condensed. In most jokes, the tension is never completely relieved. Humor does not pretend to provide “answers” for social life. As the punchline above shows, while the serious absurdity of the situation is brought to light, the joke does not (and cannot) offer a solution. There are no easy fixes for the social condition; the dilemmas woven into our social life cannot be simply wished away.

But finally, perhaps the most interesting way in which jokes can illuminate the social condition is found in the very fact that jokes are funny, that they are enjoyable despite the fact that they point to tensions, and despite the fact that these tensions could be quite serious. The joke above is funny (I think, at least) despite the fact that it involves bigotry, group boundaries, and the relationship to the Other. A world without tensions—one in which any situation could be described univocally, as one straightforward narrative—is both a world without humor but also a totalitarian world in the deepest sense of the term; it is a world we would not want to live in. Our ability to laugh at and with our social world requires its tensions. The tensions and dilemmas woven into the social are thus not only the heady material of existential angst; they are the building blocks of laughter.

A version of this article appeared in Deliberately Considered.