In the 1980s, a substantial cycle of lawyer jokes appeared in the United States. Unlike earlier waves of American jokes, the jokes did not spread to Britain and Europe, nor did the peoples of these countries invent large numbers of new jokes about lawyers at this time. The dominant theme of the American jokes was that lawyers are canny—i.e. calculating, crafty, and fond of money. It is striking that such jokes should be told about a group so close to the very core of American society, a society defined by its laws to a far greater extent than the countries of Western Europe. The nearest comparison is with the jokes told about the stupidity of politicians and apparatchiks, the groups at the very center of the former socialist regimes in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. The latter were an indication of the economic stagnation and irrationality of socialism, and the price of stupidity was collapse and failure. The American lawyer jokes relate to the price of American success, namely the intensifying of economic competitiveness that took place in America in the 1980s. American jokes about lawyers are often sadistic tales in which we are invited to rejoice in their meeting a painful death or being slain. Yet death threat jokes about lawyers have no serious counterpart; indeed it is because the jokes do not connect with reality that they circulate so freely. The relationships between our social frustrations and resentments, our choice of targets for “hostile” jokes, and our manifestations of real aggression are complex and uncertain.
Systematic empirical research into the extent to which individuals in different societies fear being laughed at is new and has implications for humor theory. Humor theorists such as Hobbes and Bergson implicitly assume that such fears were generally at a high level and both Hobbes' superiority theory of laughter and Bergson's view of it as a social corrective depend on this assumption. They purport to be general theories but are in fact the product of the particular societies in which those philosophers' lived and whose mores they took for granted. However, we can use their work to generate hypotheses that can in the future be tested against the comparative empirical data now being produced. In particular we should pay attention is the social variables of shame, face, etiquette and embarrassment on the one hand, and hierarchy, status divisions and power on the other, as probably having explanatory power.