Residence: New York, New York
Date of Performance/Collection: 03/14/19
Primary Language: English
Other Language(s): German
The informant is a 20-year-old friend from Westport, Connecticut, who plays the violin. He told me about viola jokes, which are silly, baseless jokes that strings players make about violists. He learned these from hearing other people in his orchestra, including his conductor, make these jokes. I asked him for an example of one of these jokes.
“How do you stop a violin from being stolen? You store it in a viola case.”
The concept of viola jokes was amusing to me, because they don’t seem to actually be based on anything true about viola players, but they are so widespread that they even have their own Wikipedia page. Based on my own knowledge of string instruments, violas do seem to be the odd ones out, as they use their own clef, the alto clef, which is not used by any other instrument in a classical orchestra. However, there is nothing about violas that actually suggests their inferiority as compared to other instruments, so these jokes seem to be an example of an invented other-ness that knits the rest of the group together in their identity as strings players. Without context, the jokes would seem offensive to viola players, but those who understand the jokes know that it is actually a fake out-group identity that would tie them closer to the group; in other words, knowing that the jokes are not actually making fun of violists allows the violists being made fun of, and others who understand the joke, to participate in string-instrument or orchestral culture.
For more viola jokes, see The Grand Encyclopedia of Viola Jokes by David Johnstone, found online at https://web.archive.org/web/20140824203638/http://www.j-music.es/FileUpload/articulos/gen026-Gran_Encyclopedia_viola_jokes-j-m.pdf.