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Saturday, 31 May 2014

An Irishman walks into a bar

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


Maria Zannini said...

It changes with the demographics too. For instance, in the states, an Irishman wouldn't be considered stupid but more likely drunk and Catholic.

In the US, the Poles take the mantle for dumb, which is kind of silly when you consider their countrymen, Copernicus and Marie Curie are two of the smartest people to ever walk the earth.

It makes me wonder how all this labeling came about, and more importantly, why it continues to stick.

Jeanne said...

Yes, Frédéric Chopin and Joseph Conrad were Polish too. Who would not admire them? The "Polish=stupid" stereotype may have been prevalent in the U.S. in the first half of the twentieth century, but it isn't now. Nor are Irish considered stupid in the U.S.

I don't know who carries that label in the U.S. now. Most of the insults I see on line are aimed at our own political parties, politicians, and interest groups.

Misha Gerrick said...

Interestingly, the butt of our Afrikaans jokes is actually one guy called Koos van der Merwe.

It's sort of a way of saying "everyman" since both names are very common among Afrikaans speakers.

Why they picked Van der Merwe out of all the common surnames out there (we have a few), is beyond me.

Mike Keyton said...

Maria, I think it came about because every culture/subgroup unconsciously uses humour to bolster its own position and to reinforce stereotypes. It may also provide an interesting cultural fossil record for the historian because the humour reveals stereotypes. The English may have gotten of lightly. The French called us 'Perfidious Albion' in the C19th. Since then we've been seen as 'frigid' and 'uptight' and now, of course, we are Hollywood's stock villains. Ultimately it's a bit like market forces. Absolute nonsense to try to ring round races and nationalities with protective barriers. It may help and be right for a time, but ultimately nature breaks through. Human nature is a wildnerness. It cannot be tamed indefinitely. I've had four pints.

Mike Keyton said...

Jeanne, as far as I can see politicians and interest groups are the only 'allowed' targets left

Mike Keyton said...

Misha, I love the South African solution. It may be unique. I don't know.

Unknown said...

Thank you Mike and as always, food for thought. I do enjoy your observations!
My hubby is from Donegal and has never seemed bothered by those type of jokes. In fact it's been me that has occasionally taken umbridge by proxy if you like (!) provided....its not told by someone with no irish ties at all! He says that if it's told by an irishman to another irishman its somehow acceptable yet he admits that if someone who has no irish connection or heritage at all told him the same joke he would struggle to not find it derogatory.
We've just been chatting about it and made the observation that it's not dissimilar to that unspoken rule in hip-hop, whereby some folk habitually use the 'n' word provided their own origins are deemed as giving them permission to do so. Interesting.

Unknown said...

... just to add that I'm merely making those observations and not saying what's right or wrong!

Mike Keyton said...

Mary, it is Mary isn't it? I'm useless at photographs. Thanks for the comment. I had no idea you dropped in on the blog. As for these thoughts, they're burblings after a pint or two. I like to pretend I'm in a pub with a few friends. The joke came to me and then the thoughts that followed. With reference to the N word I like to think that when Hip Hop has customised it, it will become less toxic. As a historian, I wear two hats. On the one hand I'm fully aware of why it's offensive. On the other I'm appalled by well meaning librarians and perhaps the over sensitive wanting to remove it from such classics as Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer. You can, but shouldn't censor history. Damm it. I'm in need of a pint.

Jay Paoloni said...

I think every single people had at least one or two noteworthy and exceptional individuals. For example, I am Italian: we had DaVinci, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, and other greats. Does that mean the Italians are an intelligent people? Well, some are, some are not, but given the way things are going in that country, we can't blame anyone who makes up jokes out of that!
I guess it's ok, as long as that same person makes jokes about blacks and whites and Americans and Irish alike.

Mike Keyton said...

It would be a wonderful world where everyone could laugh at each other and none take offence. We are all, beneath our various pompousities, equally absurd.

GoogleGeorge said...

René Descartes walks into a bar.

The barman asks, “The usual, René?”

René replies, “I think not” and disappears…