Like a good joke, I will keep this review brief.
In Ha!: The Science of When We Laugh and Why, Scott Weems explores the mechanisms of and motivations behind humor. His prose is concise, accessible, and at times quite amusing. The research he discusses is wide ranging and often fascinating. With a topic as elusive as humor, it is impressive how much Weems is able explain.
However, I felt he gave short shrift to he destructive potential of humor. Although he does discuss research regarding the relationship between prejudice and stereotype-based humor, he explains these jokes as representing conflicted feelings and not as an expression of prejudice. To bolster his claim, he refers the reader to the popularity of Polish jokes. According to him, these jokes cannot be expressions of prejudice because Polish people are not longer perceived as a cultural threat in the United States. Assuming that Polish jokes are indeed innocent (though I am inclined to think they are not), it would not explain the popularity of prejudice-based humor targeting groups people currently perceived as cultural threats.
Despite this one shortcoming, I think the book is well worth reading. Since this is the first book I have read on the subject, I cannot speak to whether it compares favorably or not to other books on humor. Weems’ arguments have definitely expanded my understanding of the subject and I am glad I had a chance to read it.