»  National Review Online

November 5th, 2002

  That's not funny


I assume that some portion of the NRO readership was among the two million people said to have voted for the world's funniest joke on October 3rd. An internet venture by the University of Hertfordshire (in England) has been gathering jokes for a year, in the hope of analyzing them and gaining some understanding of what makes us laugh. When they had assembled 40,000 jokes (and discarded 10,000 as "inappropriate"), they held a vote. I am not clear about the process here — did voters have to read all 40,000 jokes? — but the winner was this one.

A couple of New Jersey hunters are out in the woods when one of them falls to the ground. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes have rolled back in his head. The other guy whips out his cell phone and calls the emergency services. He gasps to the operator: "My friend is dead. What can I do?" The operator, in a soothing voice, says: "Just take it easy. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead." There is a silence, then a shot is heard. The guy's voice comes back on the line. He says: "OK, now what?"

Well, it's not bad, though personally I'd like to take a look at some of those 10,000 "inappropriate" ones. I have — I think it may have showed through a couple of times in this space — a fondness for subversive, offbeat humor, humor with a bit of acid in it.

I do believe, in any case, that these researchers are on a hiding to nothing here. Analyze humor? Try chaining the wind. Humor is the most wild, anarchic aspect of human nature, and will defy all attempts to tame or encompass it. In Nineteen Eighty-Four there were computerized machines for the writing of pornography. I think that could be very easily done — I suspect, in fact, that it already has been. But a computerized joke-writer? No way. The very small number of true things that can be said about the structure and operation of humor were said 40 years ago by Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation. I doubt humor has any more secrets to give up, and will leap free from any straitjacket these researchers attempt to put on it.

Humor has, in fact, a sort of faery-gold quality to it: If you try to concentrate your attention on it, it vanishes. It works only when you don't think about it too much. Malcolm Muggeridge, in his memoirs, recorded his time as editor of the British humor magazine Punch as having been the most miserable of his life, and draws a grim picture of the business of cooking up funny things to say week after week.

Printed humor is, in any case, a feeble substitute for performed humor. Humor works best with a context, delivered by an actual human being — which is why there is such a profession as "stand-up comic," and such a minor art form as the sitcom. There is the joke itself, and there is the person who delivers it, and the one is as much a part of the apparatus as the other. Sometimes more: there is a genius class of comics — the late British comic Eric Morecombe was one, and I think Jack Benny probably another — who could get a laugh without saying anything. Another British comic, Tommy Cooper, had a routine where he walked through a door. That was it: he walked through a door. It was incomparably hilarious.

PC has of course cast its great wet blanket over a lot of harmless jokes. I once made the mistake of telling a Wall Street Joke in mixed company. The joke was: "Two traders are going up in the elevator to work on a Monday morning. First trader: 'Do anything at the weekend?' Second trader: 'Yes, I got a dog for my wife.' First trader: 'Hey, great trade!'" One of the company, a fierce feminist, took exception to the joke, and delivered a finger-wagging lecture about how jokes of that kind demean women. Oh, yeah, right: guys who hear that joke are going to go home and beat up on their wives. What is far more likely is that they will go home and tell it to their wives, who will laugh out loud, as mine did.

I am blessed, in fact, with a wife innocent of PC, having arrived in this country in early adulthood from a place (China) where "politically correct" has another meaning altogether. Rosie even laughs at jokes poking fun at her own race — the "fluctuations" joke, for instance, which I feel sure they won't let me tell on NRO. (Let's give it a try. Oriental gentleman goes into bank, says in poor English: "Prease to change money for dorrars." Teller: "How much?" OG: "Thousand Yen." Teller checks his computer. "Here you are, Sir. Eighty-five dollars." Next day, same bank, same teller, same OG, same request. Teller checks his computer. "Here you are, Sir. Eighty-three dollars." OG frowns. "Yesterday eighty-five dorrars. Today onry eighty-thlee dorrars. How come?" Teller: "Oh, that's the exchange rate fluctuations." OG squints at him, not understanding: "Solly?" Teller gets impatient: "Fluctuations! Fluctuations!" OG: "Ah, so? Well, fructu Eulopeans, too!")

I have found, in fact, that self-mockery is a staple of Asian humor. Educated Chinese people laugh freely at their own reputation for nerdishness. The following joke is a favorite among English-speaking Chinese in China and Taiwan.

A young Chinese man is getting ready to go and study in America. The day before he leaves, his father takes him aside and warns him: "Son, you must be very careful in America. American women are very bold. They will try to seduce you! You must always be on your guard!" Son: "Yes, father." On his first day in America the boy goes into a diner. A pretty young waitress comes over. "I'll have the special, please," says the young man. "Tea or coffee?" asks the waitress. "Tea, please." Waitress: "Yes, Sir, with pleasure." Young man: "No, no, no! No pleasure!"

Among themselves, the Chinese find their main source of humor — it takes up a high proportion of of TV stand-up and sitcom humor in China — in the peculiarities of speech and custom in different parts of that immense country, and in distinctly non-PC stereotypes of each other. Shandong people are pugnacious, Shanxi people tight-fisted, Cantonese are gluttonous, etc. etc. Foreigners, on the rare occasion they enter into Chinese humor, are slow-moving, clumsy, and dimwitted, never quite understanding what's going on. (Which is, as a matter of fact, not a bad description of the average foreigner in China.) Their spoken Chinese is atrocious. The ditty goes: "Gods and demons, fear not these, / Only fear foreigners speaking Chinese."

The British internet effort turned up some familiar variations in national styles of humor, though because of the exclusion of "inappropriate" jokes, the well-known German taste for fecal humor did not appear. Peter Farb, in Word Play, tells how a skilful German comic will wind up his audience, holding off deployment of the "s" word (it's an "s" word in German, too) until the last possible minute. They all know it's coming, the tension builds up, and there is a glorious release of uncontrollable laughter when the Deplorable Word is finally uttered.

The British tend to like jokes about homosexuality and incest, while Americans are fonder of jokes dealing with the war between the sexes, like that trader joke, and the well-known one about the two guys on the golf course, whose punch line is: "Well, she was a good wife to me for 40 years." (That one was the favorite among American voters in the Hertfordshire survey.) I recall sitting in the living-room of a working-class, heterosexual American friend when the Monty Python "swanning about by numbers" sketch came on the box. If you don't know it, it's the one where a squad of soldiers, under the barked orders of a drill sergeant, flap their wrists, wiggle their bottoms, and squeal: "Ooooo, you bitch!" in strict parade-ground formation. ("Swanning about" is British slang for "acting like a homosexual.") My friend was utterly baffled, and I think a little upset. "What's funny?" he kept asking. "I don't get it. That's not funny," while I, of course, was rolling on the floor.

One curiosity of American humor is that blacks and nonblacks laugh at different things. Black Americans, in fact, have a "British" taste in humor, much more so than nonblacks. Many times I have been on a store or supermarket line when a black American standing next to me, hearing my accent, has said: "You're British? Oh, I love those British sitcoms on Channel 21!" And then we go through a couple of remembered routines from Are You Being Served or One Foot in the Grave, while the other customers on line stare at us in bewilderment. Contrariwise, I was not very surprised to learn that my favorite American TV sitcom, Married With Children, had a huge audience among black Americans.

It's not easy to second-guess these things, though. The British survey's "most frequently submitted joke" was this one: " Q: What's brown and sticky? A: A stick!" I didn't think this was very funny, and such humorous potential as it had seemed to me to be definitely "British" in flavor. However, when I told it to my two American kids, ages 9 and 7, they fell down laughing. It is now spreading like wildfire among the preteen community of Long Island. As I said, these are fathomless mysteries, defying all analysis.

The oldest recorded joke is traditionally attributed to King Archelaus of Macedon, who reigned 413-399 B.C. Asked by the court barber how he wanted his hair cut, the king replied: "In silence." When I mentioned this to a Jewish friend, though, my friend replied that while this was indeed a moderately funny remark, as things went back in the Iron Age, the exchanges between Abraham and Ephron the Hittite in Genesis 23:x-xvi trump King Archelaus by about 1,200 years. Reading up the passage, I confess I didn't get much of a laugh out of it myself, but I am not going to argue points of humor with the Jews, who are universally acknowledged to be world leaders in this sphere. (And Genesis 17:xvii does seem to give the first record of laughter in human history.)

At this point the temptation to tell a Jewish joke is of course irresistible. I am aware, though, that this is an area fraught with taboos and protocols, that there is in fact a school of thought asserting that Gentiles should not tell Jewish jokes at all. When I inquired in a recent column for opinions about the propriety or otherwise of the word "Jewess," several readers sent in Marghanita Laski's ruling that: "I may call myself a Jewess, but you may not!" Some similar principle applies to the telling of Jewish jokes. The temptation is, though, as I said, irresistible, so here is one of my favorites, which I think I got from one of Leo Rosten's books.

A man looking to buy some provisions goes into a store whose sign says PROVISIONS. He is surprised to find that there is nothing to be seen inside the store but bags of salt. There are bags of salt on all the shelves, bags of salt in the display cases, bags of salt on the counter. "Can I help you, Sir?" says the storekeeper. "Well," says the customer, "I was really looking for provisions, but all I see here is bags of salt."  Storekeeper: "Oh, this is nothing. You should see the basement. Salt, stacked from floor to ceiling!"  Customer: "I guess you must sell a lot of salt."  "Hardly any, actually."  "Really? But your whole store is full of nothing but bags of salt!"  Storekeeper: "Listen. Me, I'm no good. I can't sell salt. But the guy who sells me salt — boy, can he sell salt!"

Now here's a funny thing. Jewish humor is well-known everywhere, yet we never hear anything about Arab humor. Why not? The Hertfordshire survey offered no clue as to what makes Arabs laugh. We know, of course, that Osama bin Laden gets a smile and a chuckle from the thought of 3,000 American office workers and airline passengers being burned, crushed or hurled to death. It would be uncharitable, however, to suppose that this particular brand of humor is widespread in the Arab world. But what do they laugh at? If we are planning to do any hearts-and-minds stuff along with our projected military incursions into that world, we really should find out. Perhaps some of my Arab readers could take time out from calling me a deluded Zionist lackey to tell me what has them holding their sides over there in Damascus, Mecca and Baghdad. "A priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a bar …"