Jokester by Isaac Asimov, 1956
The magic trick:
Twisting a common sci-fi theme into a new idea
The joke may be on me, here at SSMT HQ. After all, the whole point of “Jokester” is to be wary of over-analysis. In the story, by trying to compute where jokes come from and why humans enjoy them, Meyerhof inadvertently ruins any and all sense of humor for the human race. So I’m pretty sure the very idea of analyzing this story is laughable. Nevertheless…
This isn’t a totally foreign theme for science fiction – the idea of humanity pushing technology too far and then receiving a nasty comeuppance. Usually that kind of idea focuses on weapons or military industrial complexes; maybe an overreliance on computers or overambitions in the field of medicine.
“Jokester” is unique in that it makes this point with something that on the surface seems far more innocuous than a nuclear weapon: jokes. But when you think about it, the stakes are in some ways much higher here than in your standard sci-fi morality tale. Humanity losing its sense of humor forever? That is an extreme end, and certainly one that is original and thought-provoking. And that’s quite a trick on Asimov’s part.
Meyerhof said sharply, “Why is that funny?”
Trask sobered. “I beg your pardon.”
“I said, why is that funny? Why do you laugh?”
“Well,” said Trask, trying to be reasonable, “the last line put every thing that preceded in a new light. The unexpectedness—”
“The point is,” said Meyerhof, “that I have pictured a husband being humiliated by his wife; a marriage that is such a failure that the wife is convinced that her husband lacks any virtue. Yet you laugh at that. If you were the husband, would you find it funny?”