Commentary Magazine


Notes on What’s So Damn Funny

The motives for humor are as manifold as those for murder. Among them are the raucous physical misfortunes of others (slapstick), grotesque incongruities (between reality and appearance), ethnic abuse (Polish, Irish, anti-Semitic, and other), subtlety elegantly deployed (through irony and understatement), release of inhibition (blue jokes), witnessing the mighty fallen (the revered made to look ridiculous). Laughter itself comes in multiple forms: smiles, sniggers, grins, giggles, belly laughs, falling-off-the-couch laughs, and what Mel Brooks once called heart-attack laughter. The realm of jokes encompasses the entire world in its subject matter and appears in such varying forms as puns, one-liners, epigrams, witty ripostes, practical jokes, comic commercials, and elaborate narratives requiring foreign, often Jewish-greenhorn, accents.

Various, often contradictory theories about humor have been devised—from the notion that humor is little more than a form of hidden aggression to those that hold humor is a cure for all sorts of illnesses. Given the range of motives for humor, its varying kinds and occasions and forms, can it be usefully studied and codified in the way of other phenomena?

_____________

Whether it can or not, it already is, in universities, in scholarly journals, at comedy clubs, at improv studios, and elsewhere. The University of Southern California provides students a “concentration” in humor. The University of Colorado has a Humor Research Laboratory. The International Society for Humor Studies publishes Humor: The International Journal of Humor.

_____________

Henri Bergson is perhaps the greatest name to write a full treatise on the subject, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, a work that brings to mind the comedian Chris Rock’s remark after seeing the movie The Temptation of Christ: “Not many laughs.” Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) contains a few decent jokes, but it, too, fails to light up the subject, except perhaps for that minuscule portion of the population that continues to believe in the doctrines of the man Vladimir Nabokov never failed to call “the Viennese Quack.”

_____________

Three people, it has been said, are required for the successful consummation of a joke: one person to tell it, another to laugh at it, and a third not to get it. If you have to explain it, as everyone knows, it isn’t funny.

Without spontaneity—even well-rehearsed spontaneity—humor is sadly crippled. I once told a joke through a translator to the Soviet dissident hero Andrei Sinyavsky. The translator had come up to me at a party to say Mr. Sinyavsky had heard I knew lots of jokes. He, Sinyavsky, loved jokes, and would be pleased if I would tell him one. I proceeded to do so. The translator translated me line for line. At the punchline, Sinyavsky smiled faintly, and told the translator, in Russian, “Very nice.” But it wasn’t, really. All rhythm was lost, literally, in translation, and by the time I came to the joke’s end I myself was slightly bored by it.

_____________

“Analyzing humor,” E.B. White wrote, “is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies.” This sentence appears toward the end of Peter McGraw and Joel Warner’s The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny.* Interesting they would include it, since their book is about little else than the dissection of humor to learn how it works, when it is effective, and what are its uses. The authors propose to answer such questions, among others, as: “Do comics need to come from screwed-up childhoods? What’s the secret to winning the New Yorker cartoon caption contest? Why does being funny make you more attractive? Who’s got a bigger funny bone—men or women, Democrats or Republicans?” They do answer them, but for the most part in the largely unsatisfactory manner of social science—with, that is, poll results, surveys, and focus-group findings.

McGraw, the director of the Humor Research Lab at the University of Colorado, supplied the theoretical expertise for the book. The notion of a Humor Research Lab is itself amusing. One imagines a large, well-lit room with mice and monkeys falling over with laughter while watching videos of Rodney Dangerfield.

Much legwork went into the making of The Humor Code. The authors interviewed the cartoon editor of the New Yorker and a founding editor of the Onion and many other experts. They investigated one or another aspect of humor in Sweden, Denmark, Africa, Japan, and the Palestinian territories; and talked with stand-up comics and humor theorists in New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, and elsewhere. Many studies are cited (some are called “compelling”) and the word science often comes into play when social science, a much less stringent activity, is meant. All of which leads into a poor joke of my own creation: How many social scientists does it take to change a lightbulb? Answer: Difficult to say. They’ll first need a grant to do a study of the problem.

_____________

McGraw’s studies have led him to endorse something called the benign-violation theory, which holds that “humor only occurs when something seems wrong, unsettling, or threatening (i.e., a violation), but simultaneously seems okay, acceptable, or safe (i.e., benign.)” The form this takes in most jokes and comic situations is to begin with the threat of a violation of some sort and save the uneasiness this causes by its turning benign at its end.

The theory does work with a great many jokes. In 1962 I heard Lenny Bruce, a man not overly concerned with seeming benign, tell a joke whose premise was that Sophie Tucker, still alive at 75 and then thought one of the great ladies of show business, was a nymphomaniac requiring the services of an unending supply of Puerto Rican busboys working in the nightclubs in which she performed. Bruce then staged a dialogue between Mr. Rosenberg, the (naturally) Jewish owner of such a nightclub, attempting to persuade Manuel, one of his busboys, to attend to Miss Tucker in her room. In a heavy Hispanic accent, Manuel protests vigorously, citing Miss Tucker’s age, her looks, the outrageous impropriety of the whole business. Rosenberg offers him 50 dollars. Manuel claims it’s impossible, he cannot do it. Rosenberg assures him it will all be over in 10 minutes. This back and forth conversation continues until, finally, Manuel says, “I don’t care what you say, Mr. Rosenberg, I cannot, I cannot, I will not [brief pause here] schtup her.”

The joke turns out not to be about Sophie Tucker’s putative nymphomania but about Manuel’s use of the word schtup, which picks up on the point that the minority employees of Jewish bosses often acquire odd bits of Yiddish.

Another such joke has a man and woman necking passionately on their banquette in a French restaurant, when suddenly the woman slides under the table. (You should be a bit nervous at this point.) A moment or two later the waiter approaches the table and informs the man that his wife is missing, to which he replies: “No, she’s not. She just walked in the door.” Relief follows; it’s not a fellatio joke with a high yuck quotient.

In both jokes, benignity wins out over violation. But not always, however. Not even all that often, actually. The benign-violation theory has its limits.

_____________

For example: A woman comes to her physician to announce that her husband, a Christian Scientist, has been behaving strangely of late, but, owing to his religion, refuses to see a doctor. The physician suggests she give him a list of her husband’s symptoms. After she does so, he says that there are two distinct possibilities here: Her husband has either AIDS or Alzheimer’s. When the woman asks what is she to do, the physician offers a simple solution. “Drive your husband 30 miles out of town and drop him off. If he returns home, don’t sleep with him.” (A more forceful word than “sleep,” unfit for a family magazine, was used when I first heard it.) No redemption in the benign here; quite the reverse.

_____________

Sometimes a joke will offer no hint of violation whatsoever, but will instead be a story with an amusing ending. The conductor of a great symphony has a heart attack an hour before performance. The assistant director is on sabbatical. The artistic director asks if there is anyone in the orchestra who has any experience conducting. A modest man from the viola section steps up to say that he had some minor experience conducting a student orchestra in Vienna. He’ll have to do. That night he conducts and at the end his performance is greeted with a 20-minute standing ovation and raves in the next day’s press. He conducts again the next night and the night after to similar acclaim, and takes over the job. Only at the close of the season does the regular conductor, now recovered from his heart attack, resume the podium. The violist returns to his old seat in the viola section. “Good to see you,” the violist seated next to him says. “Where’ve you been?” Nothing violative here in this joke about overrating the importance of symphonic conductors.

No wonder that, when asked about the benign-violation theory, the comedian Louis C.K. replied: “I don’t think it’s that simple. There are thousands of jokes. I just don’t believe there’s one explanation.”

_____________

Without wishing to put the various humor labs, institutes, journals, societies, and independent humor gurus out of business, thus increasing unemployment in America, why, one wonders, would anyone need to have an all-purpose explanation of how humor works anyhow? The authors of The Humor Code try to understand a laughing epidemic that took place in a high school in Tanzania, but are unable to discover what, exactly, brought it about. They go to Denmark to learn about the extreme Muslim reaction to the book of cartoons mocking Mohammed, but conclude very little. They fly down to the Amazon in clown costumes, joining Patch Adams and his troop of clowns, in the hope of cheering up the lives of wretchedly poor South American children, and the main result appears to have been that it allowed co-author Joel Warner to lose many of his inhibitions while playing a clown. They visit the Palestinian territories and write about humor among the Palestinians, but they come up with scarcely any interesting examples. In this last venture one is reminded of Albert Brooks, in his movie Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, attempting his twitchy, neurotic humor before an audience of dour Muslim men, and dying on stage.

_____________

Which brings up the question of how well humor translates from one country to another, from one culture to another, from one social class to another, from one generation to another. Imagine Jackie Mason doing stand-up before Boko Haram, Sarah Silverman before a Tea Party meeting, Alan King at a Sunday-morning session of Jesse Jackson’s PUSH organization.

_____________

Bob Mankoff, the cartoon editor of the New Yorker, tells McGraw and Warner that to be merely funny is insufficient for a cartoon to qualify for publication in the magazine. “A great New Yorker cartoon,” according to Mankoff must also “have a point” and provide “an insight”—must have an “‘aha!’ moment, alongside the ‘ha-ha.’” How many such cartoons the magazine publishes that meet this criterion is difficult to say. Most weeks the majority fail. Am I guilty of insufficient subtlety, or are Mankoff and the magazine’s editor, David Remnick (who also has a hand in choosing each week’s cartoons), and I on different wavelengths, they on FM, I on cruder AM? Might it be that New Yorker cartoons, like New York itself, always seems better when one was younger? For me the golden age of cartoons in the magazine were those of Peter Arno, Helen Hokinson, James Thurber, Charles Addams, extending up through Edward Koren, whereas I have long ago ceased bothering to read the small print balloons in the celebrated Roz Chast’s cartoons, failing to find the pay-off worth the effort.

_____________

Todd Hanson, a longtime writer for the Onion, the satirical weekly newspaper, raises the question with McGraw and Werner of historical timing and humor, chiefly connected with the question of when it is permissible to make jokes about national tragedies. The example they discuss is 9/11. Thirteen years later the time still hasn’t come to make this subject fit for comedy. The Onion never took on the subject directly, but instead made jokes about the terrorists, among them the headline “Hijackers Surprised to Find Selves in Hell.” I am not a regular reader of the Onion, but two of its headlines stick in my mind: “[Bill] Clinton Vaguely Disappointed by Lack of Assassination Attempts” and, soon after the 2008 presidential election, “Black Man Gets Worst Job in America.”

_____________

Humor changes from generation to generation, but at some times more quickly than at others. I suspect we are currently in one of those times. I have a repertoire of jokes that require what used to be called a greenhorn, or a Jewish immigrant, accent, but a generation has now come of age that may never had heard that accent since Eastern European Jewish emigration to America essentially ended nearly 70 years ago. But for many jokes the accent is necessary. A man returns from his annual checkup, and his wife asks if the doctor found anything wrong with him. “He says I have someting called herpes?” the man says. “Nu,” says his wife, “so what is herpes?” The man says he was embarrassed to ask. The wife tells him she’ll look it up in the dictionary and leaves the room. “Nothing to worry,” she says on her return. “The dictionary say herpes is a disease of the Gentiles.” Without the accent, the joke disappears.

The great Jewish-waiter jokes clearly will obviously have less force for generations who have never seen a Jewish waiter. I’m fond of a joke, which I’ve told before in Commentary, about a man who leaves a pair of shoes with a cobbler and forgets them when he goes off to World War II. When he returns to his old neighborhood 50 years later, the shoe-repair shop is still in business, the same Jewish owner is still running it. The veteran inquires about his shoes; the repairman remembers and describes them and then says “Dey’ll be ready Vendsday.” Apart from the accent problem, though there are still shoe repairmen—in my neighborhood they are almost all Russian émigrés—nowadays people more and more wear sneakers and fewer and fewer bother to have leather shoes repaired; they just toss ’em. Autres temps, autres mœurs, autres plaisanteries.

_____________

Human nature may not change, but human rhythms do. I have tried Laurel and Hardy movies, a great favorite of mine when young and a favorite still, on a number of kids and they don’t find them very funny. The action is too slow; that they are filmed in black and white doesn’t help. W.C. Fields movies produced even sadder results. In the time that it takes Fields to do one of his double pregnant pauses, my young interlocutors can send off two, maybe three text messages.

_____________

The Humor Code does not take up the matter of comedians using language once considered risqué. A small band of comedians always did “work blue”: Buddy Hackett in nightclubs was one of them, and Belle Barth another (“From me,” she used to say, “you won’t hear the Gettysburg Address”). On cable television and YouTube, of course, anything goes. Turn on Comedy Central and there is a good chance you will find a woman comedian doing a riff on tampons or the etiquette of fellatio. The political comedian Bill Maher will get a laugh calling someone with whose politics he disagrees an asshole. Not funny, though his audience, sympathetic with his politics, laughs. Has the removal of censorship increased the Gross National Humor, or only enlarged the Gross part?

_____________

A great potential source of humor, or so one would think, would be the targets open to comedians by political correctness. Not many, though, seem to have taken advantage of it, which suggests that, despite all the bravura of using once outlawed words or taking up sexual subjects, not all that many contemporary comedians are courageous, at least in this line. Fifteen or so years ago, I heard a comedian named Bobby Slayton, also known as Yid Vicious, complain about the dropping of language requirements in high schools. In his day, he noted, one had to take a language. “I took Spanish,” he said. “I figure the Puerto Ricans can learn it, how tough can it be?” That joke today just might get him a lawsuit.

_____________

Sarah Silverman is a comedian who bucks political correctness, though not quite directly. Through the persona of a faux-naive Jewish princess, she gets away with jokes that would be disallowed if told straightforwardly. In one she begins by remarking that her biological clock is ticking, but there seems never to have been a good time for her to have had children. She then runs through the inappropriateness of her having done so at various times in her life: in her early twenties she was still immature, an airhead; in her late twenties her career was finally getting under-way, and there was no time; in her early and middle thirties that same career absorbed all her energy. “I guess,” she concludes, “the best time to have a baby is when you’re a black teenager.”

More daringly, she jokes about what she calls “the alleged” Holocaust. One such joke has her “lesbian niece” report to her that in Hebrew school she learned that they killed 60 million Jews during the Holocaust.” She corrects the niece by saying that it was “only” 6 million. “What’s the difference?” the niece asks. “The difference” Silverman replies, “is 60 million is unforgiveable, young lady.” These jokes, please notice, reverse the violation-benign formula. They start out benign and end up in full-flame violation.

_____________

Sarah Silverman is a liberal—a potty-mouthed liberal, for she gets most of her laughs using what one can only call naughty (to the highest power) words. But, then, the most commercially successful comedians of the current day are also liberal: Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Bill Maher. The only authentically conservative comic I know of is Dennis Miller. Liberalism, based on hope, should offer more fodder for humor than conservatism, which prides itself on reality, but in our time it does not—though the authors of The Humor Code quote a study done at Duke University showing that conservatives responded more generously to a wider range of jokes than did liberals. Another of the mysteries of humor, this, that cannot be decoded.

_____________

Can a person enjoy humor that rubs too harshly against the grain of his or her politics? The short answer is probably not. Perhaps the most successful political comedian of the past half-century was Mort Sahl. I met Sahl one night coming out of the long-defunct Chicago nightclub called Mr. Kelley’s and could not resist asking him if the then racist governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, took over William Fulbright’s senate seat, as he threatened to do, would this mean that students would study abroad on a Faubus? “Not bad,” he said, and then told me that a recently planned meeting between Adlai Stevenson and Dwight David Eisenhower had to be cancelled because the translator didn’t show up.

Mort Sahl was a fairly standard liberal, but as a comedian he was prepared to abandon his politics for a laugh. One night on Jack Paar’s Tonight Show he avowed that he had had a most disturbing letter from the NAACP, informing him that, as a man of the left, he ought to be ashamed not to have a Negro (as the term then was) in his act. Sahl allowed that the NAACP had a point. “So I’ve hired this brilliant young black comedian,” he said. Pausing, he looked down at his watch, and added: “He ought to have been here by now.” It took the audience fully 15 seconds to get the joke, and break out in ripple-effect laughter.

_____________

The field for humor has also expanded in my lifetime. Mel Brooks made bad taste not only acceptable but amusing. The flatulent cowboys sitting around a fire after a meal of beans in his 1974 movie Blazing Saddles is only one notable example. The play within a play, “Springtime for Hitler,” in his 1968 movie and 2002 Broadway musical The Producers is another. On 60 Minutes, Brooks, interviewed by Mike Wallace, broke into Wallace’s first question by asking him what he paid for his wristwatch. He broke into the second question by feeling the lapels of Wallace’s sport-jacket and asking what a garment like that cost. He was playing the pushy, the utterly materialistic, Jew, and, so egregious was he, he got away with it.

Woody Allen, in his stand-up days and also in his movies, made self-debasement and hypochondria into subjects for humor. The television show Seinfeld did something similar with selfishness—the defining quality of nearly every character on the show was his disregard for the feelings or interests of others—thus playing an ostensibly deplorable vice for laughs. Larry David, along with Jerry Seinfeld the principal creator of Seinfeld, has done the same thing with insensitivity on his HBO show Curb Your Enthusiasm.

_____________

Christine Davies, a man described in The Humor Code as “the Indiana Jones of hilarity,” notes that “nearly every country has stupidity jokes.” This means that every country finds someone, usually within its borders, to select for comic abuse. The Polish joke has receded in popularity in America in recent years, replaced by the less ethnically offensive blonde jokes. In India the Sikhs are the victims of such humor, as the Irish have long been for the English. (What do you call an Irish homosexual? A man who prefers women over whiskey.) Uzbeks, Davies claims, “get made fun of in Tajikistan, while in France it’s the French-speaking Swiss…Brazilians joke about the Portuguese, Finns knock the Karelians, Nigerians rib the Hausas.” In the realm of international humor, the French used to ask what was the difference between America and yogurt, the answer to which is yogurt has culture.

_____________

Of course ithas long been understood that minority members can tell jokes, often brutal ones, against their own people in the same way that they can use otherwise banned words to describe them. Richard Pryor and the early Eddie Murphy did humor about blacks; Pryor had a bit about being the first black president that is all too prescient about our current president. Keegan Michael Key and Jordan Peele, a very funny team, do wildly amusing bits about ghetto-named athletes, a black teacher mispronouncing all the conventional names in a white suburban school, and gay black gangstas. I hope they will one day do Jesse Jackson confronting Al Sharpton, but that is perhaps too much to ask.

_____________

Jews are famous for jokes about Jews, not all of them likely to pass the anti-Semitism test of the Anti-Defamation League. (What happens when a Jew with an erection runs into a wall? Answer: He breaks his nose. What is the ultimate Jewish dilemma? Answer: Ham—on sale.) Only Jews could have devised Gentile jokes, two of which run: A Gentile goes into a men’s shop and inquires about the price of a suede jacket. When told it cost $1,800, he replies: “I’ll take it.” The same Gentile calls his mother on Thanksgiving to say that he’ll be three hours late for dinner. “I understand,” she says. These jokes are of course not about Gentiles at all, but about the supposed Jewish propensity for haggling and about neurotically demanding Jewish mothers.

_____________

Humor ought never to be too general, or at least the best jokes never are. Warner and McGraw cite what a humor expertconcluded, by way of survey, to be the world’s funniest joke. This is it: Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn’t seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed. The other guy whips out his phone and calls emergency services. He gasps, “My friend is dead! What can I do?” The operator says, “Calm down. I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s dead.” There is a silence then a gunshot. Back on the phone the guy says, “Okay, now what?”

Not that funny, and, as Warner and McGraw suggest, it can only have qualified as the world’s funniest joke because it offends no large group (with the exception, perhaps, of animal-rights activists opposed to hunting) and is general in its context and frame of reference; it could, presumably, have taken place in almost any country in the world. But more particular humor is better; and private humor, between two or three persons, can sometimes be best of all.

_____________

Gallows humor is not taken up in The Humor Code, that humor which comes in to play when situations are so dour that there is nothing left but to laugh. The humor that came out of the Soviet Union is a notable case in point; the heritage of Soviet Communism, of 75 years of murder, useless suffering, and general gloom, produced little of value except perhaps a dozen good jokes. A characteristic one is about the man who goes into a Soviet car dealership to learn that there is only one model of car for sale, that this model has no extra features, comes in only one color, and cannot be delivered for 10 years. The man says that he’ll take it but would prefer to have it delivered in the afternoon 10 years from today. When the car salesman asks why in the afternoon, the man says that he has the plumber coming in the morning. If there were good German jokes within the briefer Nazi era, none has come down to us. But, then, in the joke that lists the world’s five shortest books, the first volume is titled “Great German Stand-up Comedians.”

_____________

What of the healing effects of laughter, a theory given wide publicity by Norman Cousins, then the editor of the Saturday Review, in a series of books published in the 1970s and early ’80s about the relief he gained from laughing while suffering illness. Cousins used Marx Brothers movies to relieve pain. “I made the joyous discovery that 10 minutes of genuine belly laughter had an anesthetic effect and would give me at least two hours of pain-free sleep,” he reported. “When the pain-killing effect of the laughter wore off, we would switch on the motion-picture projector again and not infrequently, it would lead to another pain-free interval.” McGraw and Warner do not hold with Cousins’s ideas on the curative effects of humor. The most they concede is that “while science doesn’t yet support the idea that humor improves people’s physical health, there is evidence that it improves emotional health.” Humor, they hold, “helps people cope with their problems, it distracts from dispiriting thoughts, it creates an escape from what ails you, whether that be the loss of a loved one, a diagnosis of Parkinson’s, a lifetime of suffering in a place like Belen, or just a crummy day.” I’m not sure this isn’t overstatement; Parkinson’s is no laughing matter, nor is the death of a loved one, or a lifetime of suffering anywhere. Even laughter has its limits.

_____________

Havelock Ellis, the pioneering psychologist and a less than notably funny man, thought that laughter had a religious basis. “Even the momentary expansion of the soul in laughter is, to however slight an extent, a religious exercise,” Ellis wrote. There is something appealing about the notion that laughter is an expansion of the soul, allowing fleeting moments in which all one’s troubles are dismissed and one feels an elevation of spirit. The notion suggests that laughter is a gift, possibly a divine gift. I say “possibly divine” because, when viewing the human comedy, in its full range of preposterousness, its endless ironies and unexpected pratfalls, one is forced to conclude that God Himself must love a joke.

About the Author

Joseph Epstein, a longtime contributor to Commentary, is the author of A Literary Education and Other Essays (Axios Press).




Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.