Shopping in Borders on Sunday morning, I noticed a children’s picture book telling the story of the joke of the wide mouth frog. It is beautifully illustrated with a hand puppet wide mouth frog in the centre of the book, ready to make the joke come alive.
In case you are not familiar with it, the wide mouth frog joke is highly visual and involves two main faces, one for the wide mouth frog and then another for the wide mouth frog when she’s trying to pretend not to be a wide mouth frog. It goes along the lines, with many variations, of a wide mouth frog going to the zoo to ask other animals what they eat until one says it eats wide mouth frogs.
It’s a joke that can be taken on face value, and certainly doesn’t appear at first glance to have sinister connotations, and the range of voices and facial expressions make it popular with children.
I’ve got a small problem with it, though.
(Small problems with cultural products come naturally to me, raised in the era of boycotting South African bananas and writing to the BBC to complain about the portrayal of Black people in soap operas.)
My problem is with the provenance of the joke.
Despite being an avid collector of jokes, my first encounter with the wide mouth frog was neither in a playground or a pub, but in Alan Dundes’ 1987 book ‘Cracking Jokes: Studies of Sick Humour Cycles and Stereotypes’. This is not light reading, but fantastic for anyone who may have noticed patterns in the way stupid jokes break down into trends and come and go. Not the clever jokes that are always funny, but the ones that are kind of silly and all fit into a wider category.
Dundes links the popularity of certain jokes with current events. Although it is easy to dismiss such a theory, as there is rarely hard evidence to work from, it is at very least plausible to say that the surge of dead baby jokes that appeared in the late 1970s mirrored the Roe v Wade case, and that the wave of elephant jokes was actually relating to the popularity of the Democrats in the USA in the early 1960s. Linking in with the wide mouth frog jokes, Dundes and his co-author Roger D. Abrahams offer the interpretation that the elephant in the jokes represented White America’s elephant in the room: the end of segregation and the big and righteous push toward equality for Black America.
The wide mouth frog jokes came later than the elephant jokes, beginning to enter circulation in the early 1970s USA. Most tellers of the joke were unable to offer much in the way of interpretation, but Dundes’ conviction that jokes do not exist in a vacuum but as part of a society and popular folklore begs further analysis of this category of jokes.
This concept fits with the idea that humour falls broadly into three central categories, although that itself is hugely oversimplified. The three categories are: incongruity; superiority and relief. Dundes’ explanation of the metaphor behind the wide mouth frog jokes dovetails neatly with the third, tension relieving branch of humour.
This is where the fact that such a book has made it into print and into a major bookselling chain becomes slightly shocking.
Dundes argues strongly that the joke is in fact an analogy of the survival tactics of Black Americans. This works on two levels, the first is that the frog enters the zoo from a free world. On entering the zoo, it enters a closed society with unwritten rules and the frog has to learn to toe the line with these rules or face being eaten.
Although this can be taken to apply to outspoken people of any political persuasion when coupled with the speech patterns required for the joke, the need to conform and quiet down appears to be directed squarely at Black Americans, or at least a certain stereotype of Black Americans that was in circulation in the early 1970s. This is evident in the way sounds are made if you force your mouth into a maniacal grin when you speak. It produces a peculiar accent similar to ridiculous clichés of ‘Black American’ (Southern?) speech. As such, the wide mouth frog joke provides a socially sanctioned outlet for white people to ‘talk Black’, though, as Dundes notes, “what the Whites who talk Black say is that Blacks ought to be forced to talk White.”
But it seems that I’m alone in finding the wide mouth frog story book really, really offensive. After all, it’s a silly joke about a frog in a zoo. The book is sturdy and colourful and involves little more than silly voices. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced.
As Dundes says: “Racism need not be conscious to be destructive.”