The Funny Side

Jul 21, 2014

My father and uncles all loved a good joke, or even a bad one. But I can’t tell jokes, or even remember them, which has been a lifelong source of frustration. A friend of mine who was a born raconteur could keep a whole dinner table in an uproar of laughter for hours with his stories, and I would sit there thinking I must remember that one, I must remember that one. Now I can’t remember any of them, except for a few that are too politically incorrect to repeat.

My favorite childhood reading  included lots of funny writers like Lewis Carroll, W.W. Jacobs and P.G. Wodehouse, and what I learned from them was that humor is an infinitely moveable feast. Jokes are not necessary once you realize that practically everything has a funny side.

Some years ago I tried teaching humor writing at various writers’ conferences. I can’t claim that it was a great success. It was easy enough to explain the mechanics of humor – techniques like exaggeration, understatement, reversal, anachronism, absurdity, parody and so on that anyone can learn.But what I discovered through teaching was the old truism that, when you take humor seriously, you kill it stone dead. As E.B.White so elegantly put it: "Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested, and the frog dies."

Even more frustrating, it was next to impossible to develop the essential spark, the SENSE of humor, in people who didn’t have it. "Everyone has a sense of humor" is one of those silly clichés, like "Every cloud has a silver lining" and "Every child has a special gift," that vanishes in a puff of smoke the moment we think about it. It’s simply not true.

The experience of foreign travel confirms that every national sense of humor is different. Some countries have none at all and are proud of it, some adore slapstick, others get nothing but satire, and some relish only extremely long and complicated jokes that nobody else can understand. Telling what you imagine is a funny story to a group of mixed nationalities is likely to get a response of blank incomprehension. North Korea has not been able to see the funny side of the movie "The Interview," any more than Hitler and Mussolini were amused by Charlie Chaplin’s film "The Great Dictator."

All of which makes me wonder whether the misunderstandings that divide us might have as much to do with humor, or the lack of it, as with anything else. If we could all laugh at the same things we might get along better. You may say, and you would be right, that there’s not much in today’s world to laugh at. The news comes at us like a serial Greek tragedy, new horrors every day. But, as we should have learned from Shakespeare, tragedy has to be balanced with comedy. After every sad scene, he brings in the clowns. 

Life may not be a good joke, but it is certainly a joke of some kind, and the one joke we all share is ourselves: our customs, habits and prejudices, our crazy institutions and our bizarre cultures. The joke is not just on us, it is us. We are not, as a species, even trying to be serious, but we think we are. If that’s not funny I don’t know what is.

Copyright: David Bouchier