Declan Kiberd in the Irish Times today (subs needed) notes that “ever since the European Enlightenment, virtues have been seen as personal, while vices are most often treated as national”. Nowhere clearer than in the telling of jokes:
Most compulsive jokers are shy, insecure persons, who tell their party piece as a way of securing social acceptance without having to submit to the risks of two-way conversation. Having a good sense of humour isn’t at all the same thing as having a propensity to tell jokes. It has more to do with possessing a particular cast of mind which reveals itself suddenly in a moment of pressure. And, in that department at least, national and ethnic characteristics persist, especially whenever the topic turns to religion.
Anger with the Almighty marks Irish wit. Asked what he thought of the life to come, Joyce said he didn’t think much of this one. Seán Ó Ríordáin said “má tá Dia ann, is bastard ceart é”. Kenneth Tynan was right to say that the Irish express a very deep grudge against God which the merely godless would never feel. Contrast that with the almost wistful, anti-climactic humour of Woody Allen’s lament: “Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on Sundays.”
The Protestant Swiss take a more pragmatic view. When one of their church spires was damaged by lightning, its rector found parishioners strangely unwilling to stump up money. “If God chooses to set fire to his own building,” they reasoned, “why should we pay for the restoration?”
While the Irish rage, the Americans sigh and the Swiss reason, the Jews (as always) wait. They tell the story of a poor father of a large family who was unemployed for many years. Eventually, taking pity on him, village elders gave him a post as a sentry, to look out for the Messiah. After many weeks, he complained of the poor pay and that his kids were still hungry. But the elders would have none of it. “Your post could not be a more important one,” they consoled him with soulful deliberation. “And besides,” added one of the wisest men of all, “it’s a permanent job.”