An Irishman walks into a bar and sees a man with a large gold-fish bowl. The man gathers a small crowd around him and places two fingers into the bowl. Within minutes the goldfish are swimming in formation and performing complex, watery balletics. The Irishman is amazed and asks how it’s done. The man states the obvious: a man’s mind is superior to that of a goldfish. The two fingers in the water merely conducts the will of superior mind.
The Irish man says, ‘I can do that’, and places his two fingers in the bowl. He closes his eyes. Moments later his brow is furrowed, and beads of sweat run down his cheeks. Soon after that his mouth opens and closes…pop…pop…pop.
It’s a very old joke, one that made me laugh as a kid. The question though is what actually constitutes ‘the joke’ here? Is it the visual image of goldfish doing Busby Berkeley routines or the Irishman having a mind inferior to that of a goldfish?
The Irish joke has long been a staple of English working class humour, and I believe in Ireland there are Kerry jokes. Perhaps in Kerry there are jokes centred around one particular town – a street – a house.
Comedic Russian dolls.
It would be beyond the pale to substitute a black or a woman for the Irish man. It would rightly be seen as perpetuating and reinforcing past prejudices and injustice. Then again you could argue the same applies to the ‘Irishman’ at the hands of the English.
The question arises is there a substitute? If we said, for example, ‘An American walks into the bar etc’ it would read gratuitously hostile. On the other hand, if we said ‘A German walks into a bar it would just sound incongruous, because we don’t associate Germans with stupidity. The joke wouldn’t work.
For this kind of joke to work it has to match an established stereotype, and has to reflect either some hostility or the false reassurance that the audience is in many ways superior to the butt of the joke. It’s a subtle kind of collective bullying, keeping a perceived threat in its place. It's something done on a regular basis on otherwise politically correct panel shows, the butt being those whose politics are feared or despised:
A red-neck / ukip supporter walks into a bar…
We could of course abandon this kind of joke all together, but I suspect that we wont. It's not in our