Meet The Man Whose Life’s Work Was Studying Dirty Jokes
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
A drunk falls asleep while taking a piss on the curb under a lamp post. Two pranksters tie a blue ribbon around his penis. He wakes up in the morning, sees the ribbon, and says to his penis “I don’t know where you’ve been or what you’ve been doing, but I’m glad to see you won first prize.”
Gershon Legman collected this joke and thousands of others like it. A cultural critic and folklorist, he published “Rationale of the Dirty Joke,” a 1,600-page magnum opus tracing the origins of potty humor from around the globe.
The book is no mere compendium of tasteless jokes, although there are plenty to be found. Gershon was a scholar and he wanted to understand the social and psychological forces that combine to create humor. He believed that behind every dirty joke was a subconscious urge to humiliate someone, whether it was the subject of the joke or the listener.
To prove his thesis, Gershon gathered examples from as far back as the 16th century. He conducted interviews with people from all over the world and wove the information together in a massive, curiously beautiful tapestry of smut. Jokes are presented alongside their history and sorted by category?—?the already-experienced bride, the horny grandfather, the precocious spying child. It’s a dizzying read, dense with implication and as thought-provoking as it is funny.
Dirty jokes get a bad rap: at best, they’re a waste of time. At worst, they’re a mark of low character. What kind of person would devote his life to such an exhaustive study of crude comedy?
Meet Gershon Legman
George “Gershon” Legman was born in Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1917. His father, a kosher butcher, was a frustrated intellectual who fled Romania after impudently criticizing the czar. Gershon’s father had big academic dreams for his son, but Gershon was focused on comedy: from an early age, he clipped jokes out of magazines and glued them to index cards, which he filed away in a shoebox. This fixation on organization and preservation would later come to define his life.
Gershon was unusually literate and his parents expected him to become a rabbi when he grew up. His father sent him to New York City at sixteen to attend rabbinical school, but Gershon bristled at the authoritarian teachers and soon returned to Scranton.
Gershon also struggled to find his place in the world of secular education, dropping out of the University of Michigan after only one semester. He eventually settled in New York City, where he stayed afloat financially by taking odd jobs. He became a fixture at the New York Public Library, delving deep into their collection of vernacular history to feed his obsession with smut.
A man with diverse interests
In his work as a cultural critic, Gershon theorized that America was excessively prudish about sexuality but too permissive when it came to violence. As the editor of the quarterly magazine, “Neurotica,” he penned editorials about the gore-soaked comic books of the day. He believed that sexual repression led to violent impulses and thought that if people would only let their freak flags fly, the world would be a much more peaceful place.
Gershon’s interests weren’t exclusively dirty: After sustaining an ankle injury in 1945, he became absorbed in the Japanese art of origami. He threw himself into the study of paper folding with the same obsessiveness he usually reserved for dirty jokes.
Gershon used origami as a means of ingratiating himself with strangers. He captivated people with his cunning paper sculptures, all the while soliciting jokes and tall tales for his anthology. Before long, his collection of inappropriate humor threatened to overtake the entire apartment he shared with his wife.
Gershon leaves the States
In 1953, Gershon left the United States and settled in the more permissive France. His last few years in the US were marked by a series of small skirmishes with the government. Back then, the postal service was a key player in the war against obscenity; postal workers searched the mail and confiscated anything smutty. Gershon conducted most of his research remotely and losing an envelope of nasties was a major blow.
Gershon and his wife settled on the Riviera and he began work as a freelance writer, penning some of the most transgressive nonfiction of the 20th century. Grove Press, an avant-garde publisher, released the first volume of “Rationale of the Dirty Joke” in 1968. The timing was ideal —the “Summer of Love” occurred one year prior and what was once forbidden was now mainstream. Folk music was gaining popularity and vernacular art forms were experiencing a renaissance.
In 1975, Gershon published a second volume, entitled, “No Laughing Matter: Rationale of the Dirty Joke.” The book was not well received: the novelty of the first book had pretty much worn off, and the contents of “No Laughing Matter” were harder to excuse. This book focused on jokes with darker and more perverse themes, like scatology, venereal disease and necrophilia. Both versions of “Dirty Joke” eventually went out of print, but not before scholars got their hands on them. Gershon’s research was unmatched and his work inspired other scholars to research and catalog vernacular traditions.
Comedy as an equalizing force
Gershon devoted his life to writing about topics that fascinated him. In 1953, he published “The Limerick,” an anthology of over 1,700 humorous poems. In 1969, he released “Oragenitalism,” an instructional guide for performing oral sex.
In addition to his own writing, Legman was a coveted source of original research for scholars around the world. He formed epistolary relationships with writers like Zora Neale Hurston and with folk song historian, Alan Lomax.
It’s easy to dismiss Gershon Legman. The idea of a person penning not one, but two psychoanalytical tomes of dirty jokes is ridiculous. But in his own idiosyncratic way, Legman laid a very real groundwork for future scholars investigating the world’s folklore. He documented an invisible tradition and made it available to anyone who asked.
There’s meaning in humor beyond the belly laugh. Comedy exposes the inner workings of our society in surprising ways. It allows us to cut through divisions of class, race and gender to find commonality; laughter is the great equalizer.
Did you hear the one about the two nuns and the rabid dog?