Richard Papp: “But look at the world.” Culture and humour: canon or apocrypha?

“‘A traveler, arriving in a Galician town, orders a pair of trousers from a Jewish tailor. Three months later he leaves, without the trousers. After seven years he happens to pass through the same place again and, lo and behold, the tailor comes to deliver the trousers. ”Well”, the traveler exclaims astounded God created the world in seven days-but you took seven years for a pair of trousers!” ”True”, the Jew agrees, quite unimpressed, ”but look at the world – and look at the trousers.” (Cohen 1987:3)

How should this joke be interpreted?

“Wry”, “doubtful”, “blasphemous”? Does such a story temporarily allow the teller of the joke and his listeners to turn against and ridicule traditional values and norms which it twists around? (i.e. Freud 1982: 127-130) Or, is it the experience of the joke, and the free communication with the most important and “most sacred” components of their culture? (Cohen 1987: 1-16)

How does humour fit into the set of concepts and practices of a culture?

What is its relation to the “cultural-traditional canon” of communal values and norms? Do those who laugh at it, and those who find it inappropriate, or reprehensible, consider humour as some kind of “cultural apocrypha” norm and event? When, with whom, how, and why may we joke around? The following examples may provide a glimpse into the cultural meanings connected to these questions.

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