A rabbi and a priest walk into a bar...


God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit decide they want to take a vacation. God suggests the Garden of Eden because he hasn't been there since he expelled Adam and Eve. Jesus has another idea: "How about Bethlehem? I haven't been there since I was born." Then the Holy Spirit pitches in. "No, no. I want to go to Rome. I've never been there."

That joke, which suggests the Catholic Church was founded on a fraud, said Chicago philosophy professor Ted Cohen, AB'62, is a "very short story," a work of art. To get the joke, listeners need to share an understanding of the language and its reference points—which often include stereotypes. And ethnic or religious jokes are going to offend some people, he said, but does that mean they should stop being told? At the Gleacher Center Thursday night, Cohen's talk, "The Uses and Misuses of Humor," explored this question with an audience of about 50 alumni, asking: Is there any objective sense in which a joke could be deemed unacceptable?

For the jokes Cohen presented, the answer was no. Take the Catholic quip: someone sensitive to its content may say, "Well, it's not true" that the Catholic Church was founded on a lie. "Of course not!" Cohen said, exasperated. "A joke is a fiction," and stereotypes are not meant to express a general truth. Quite simply, some people think the joke is funny, and others get offended—they simply like different things. "I don't like Holocaust or dead-baby jokes," he said, "but I don't think they're doing anything wrong." If people want to make these jokes, he conceded, let them; Cohen just won't listen.


Photo: Ted Cohen illustrates the first Ukranian joke he had ever heard: What does the arrow point to? The last link in the trans-Ukranian railway.

April 11, 2008