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October 26, 2010

Humanities Day: Cohen cracks code of jokes

What do you get when you cross Humanities Day and an academic humorist? One Wilde time.

Philosophy professor Ted Cohen lectured on metaphors and joke—“Instruments of Freedom”—and explained the mechanisms behind his favorite punch lines.

Jokes and metaphors “require and resolve from the breaking of rules,” Cohen said. When these rules are broken, a sense of freedom is gained.

He praised Oscar Wilde, one of humanities’ most notable wits, as someone who could break these rules with ease.

“When a group of English gentry were asked to find a subject to discuss, one said, ‘Queen Victoria!’ Oscar Wilde immediately responded, ‘Queen Victoria is not a subject!’

“If you gave me a stack of paper, a week, and some water and food, I might have been able to think of that,” Cohen said.

A joke is much more than entertainment, Cohen said. It’s a unique form of human expression.

“Your joke-telling is a hope. You take a chance when you make a joke or metaphor,” Cohen said. “When your joke or metaphor does work with me, then we share humanity, then we share the world.”

Cohen recited passages from Shakespeare and the Hebrew “Song of Songs,” which uses a garden as a metaphor for romance. “Some have insisted that these lines are not about young sex. Fat chance,” he said.

Cohen also distinguished between a story, a joke, and wit. He spoke of the role of the “staircase wit,” who comes up with a good comeback after the moment has passed.

Cohen stated that few things could offend him. Rather, he enjoys specificity in ridicule. He also said that he firmly believes in the power of laughter. “There is great virtue in shared laughter,” he said.

First-year Eliza Clark accompanied her father to the lecture for Parents’ Weekend. “I loved the jokes. They were hilarious. He was engaging. It was a discussion more than a lecture, and that’s the type of learning I like.”

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