What Makes Something Funny?
Stuart Evers on Why Jokes Make the Best Weapons
My favorite joke is a joke about comedy.
“Everyone laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.”
This is a Bob Monkhouse joke, one of many fine one-liners he honed over a career that took him from theater to gameshow host, from hated old-guard to respected elder statesman. On the page it’s good; on the stage sublime: Monkhouse’s delivery initially enthusiastic, then bitterly self-lacerating. It’s a perfect story of failure, distilled into a setup and punchline: a joke that is both funny and self-aware, sad but satisfying. And it’s gone so quickly, so fleetingly this joke, like every joke: the audience and performer already moving on to the promise of the next gag.
In Isaac Asimov’s story, “Jokester,” an all-seeing computer, Multivac, reveals that jokes are a psychological experiment designed by a cadre of aliens—clearly with too much time on their hands, or tentacles, or whatever they experience time through—and are therefore extra-terrestrial in origin. It’s a nice conceit, and one that sometimes doesn’t seem so fanciful.
The first joke I ever heard—or certainly the first sick joke I ever heard—that seemed beamed from somewhere else was in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster. The next day at school, Simon Lancaster took a few of us aside. “Why does NASA drink Coca-Cola?” he said. “Because they can’t get Seven-Up.” It was so quick, so tight, and so brilliantly joke-like, I couldn’t imagine where he had got it from. I had never met anyone, no one at all, who was as quick-witted at that, who could take a tragedy and instantly transform it into a one-liner. It didn’t matter that he hadn’t himself come up with it; the fact that someone, somewhere, had, just kicked me hard in the pants and head.
That joke is perhaps why, as a teenager, I listened to more comedy than I did music. The local library had a small but well-curated selection of comedy records, and in them I found names I recognized without having seen or heard them before: Monty Python, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers. There were shows I liked on the television, but I preferred the slightly dusty, faded records: their faceless comedy. I studied comedy as much as I studied novels and stories, but unlike Bob Monkhouse I never wanted to be a comedian: I just wanted to understand what made something funny.
In a comprehension test I took in my late teens, one of the questions asked was why the selected text was funny. It was not funny. It was nothing like Rita Rudner or Bill Hicks or Denis Leary. It wasn’t even like Simon Lancaster. But, dutifully, I wrote something about anthropomorphism, hyperbole and irony, knowing a better answer would have been to paraphrase Monkhouse: if it ever was funny, no one’s laughing now. I mentioned this to a teacher after the exam. Comedy is subjective, he said, in that bombastic way some men deliver the most banal truisms. But this oft-repeated cliché isn’t true. What you find funny is subjective, but comedy isn’t: comedy is just a delivery method, a packaged idea of humor. The distinction is important.
Academic theories of humor are legion: neat thesis coiling; a rigorous psychological and philosophic set of terms attempting to pin down why and how we need to laugh. I’ve tried to read them, but either they are so obvious as to be self-evident—the development of humor as part of sexual attraction is just an academic way of expressing s/he laughed them into bed—or so academic to feel part of a more elaborate joke. This is from On the Problems of the Comic by Peter Martienson:
The comic then, that which causes laughter . . . is the perception of an “unravelling of the seams” between external facts, intuitive notions and cultural concepts, all of which are normally leveled and rendered equivalent in anthropomorphic perception.
Reading this now, I’m waiting for the punchline, a hit of Woody Allen’s exquisite bathos, perhaps (…equivalent in anthropomorphic perception. Either that, or it’s a fat man from Ghent being hit by a fish). And in waiting for the punchline I am reminded of Woody Allen and go to my bookshelf and take down Getting Even. The first page I open: “True, the passage was totally incomprehensible to me, but what of it, so long as Kierkegaard was having fun?” Reading about humor just makes me want to laugh properly.
It’s unfair to mock the seriousness of those researching humor at an academic level… but that is the nature of humor: it suggests itself wherever you look, especially around the profound and serious. Humor is a means of sexual attraction, an “unravelling of the seams,” as well as a defense mechanism: if you feel intellectually inferior to someone who has clearly thought longer and harder about a subject than you have, a well-aimed joke will at least level the playing field (“Not through wrath but through laughter one slayeth,” as Nietzsche had it). It also affects just about every social interaction we make.
Humor is inclusive and organic; and, like ending a novel with word mayonnaise, it expresses a human need. It is the oil that gets us through the day, the light that blunts the shade. I saw this most keenly when I was working away from home in the UK equivalent of Scranton, Pennsylvania. Each morning, I’d get the train from London and see the same kinds of groups, men and women who did not know each other well having to share an hour’s journey together. They would take their seats and put down coffees and pastries and someone would say something about work. You could count the beats before someone would make a joke. It was almost always a man. Then someone would laugh. The first one to laugh would make the second joke. The laughter for the second joke would either be polite, or be over the top. And this laughter would determine the entire rest of the journey. The laughter could bring them closer together, or merely cause an uneasy détente; it could put them at ease or move them swiftly on to shop talk. It was as close to a masterclass in group dynamics as I could imagine. There it was, just a small joke which would set the tone for the group, select its leader, give non-Alpha members an opportunity to show their worth; and ultimately, help to deal with the extreme psychological trauma of being stuck for an hour with people whose only connection is what they do for cash.
In fiction, this is how a great deal of realistic or naturalistic prose works: bringing a series of characters together in a particular setting, period or situation and seeing how they interact, what happens when they bump up against each other’s prejudices, desires and foibles. Denying them humor in such a framework is to deny them basic humanity, to make them thin and lipless. Orwell’s 1984, for instance, is utterly without humor—despite Anthony Burgess’s entertaining but deliberately provocative argument that it is a comic novel in his essay 1948: An Old Man Interviewed—and with good reason. Orwell could write with comic gusto—Keep the Aspidistra Flying, much of his journalism—but the kind of British state in which Winston Smith finds himself cannot co-exist with British cynicism, satire, and old-fashioned gags. Extremism is difficult to widely cultivate in a culture constantly waiting to prick the bubble of pretention. Orwell, therefore, has to excise humor to build his nightmare realm—though what excuse the novels of DH Lawrence and Thomas Hardy have is less clear.
I made a similar point at an evening discussing humor in fiction, and an audience member took exception. Fiction, she said, is not stand-up comedy—we don’t need laughs to enjoy a book. It felt to me a conflation of two distinct things. Humor is amateur and collaborative, but comedy is mercantile. It is the commercialization of humor, the taking of its component parts and reassembling it for consumption. The humor I was talking about does not require laughs, just recognition that something is supposed not to be serious; comedy on the other hand is busted without it.
The skill to take ordinary humor, mine life for its absurdity, and then turn it into comedy is a rich and astonishing skill. The best comic prose—Wodehouse, Thurber, Nora Ephron, Lorrie Moore, David Sedaris—is miraculous. Without delivery, a facial expression, a funny voice, you’re skating on nothing: the words are all you have, and every laugh is harder fought. Go to a comedy club and sit down and you’re already pre-disposed to laughter. You have an audience around you also wanting to laugh. You catch their laughter and you’re taken along with the whole thing. Sit down with a comic novel that doesn’t make you laugh and you’re left wondering what’s the point. Richard Ford calls the short story “the highwire act of literature,” but comic prose is just as precarious, plus it’s dressed up and wearing a funny wig.
In my own fiction, I’ve played on the sometimes uneasy relationship between comedy and humor; between what is supposed to be funny, and what people consider to be funny. The last story in my collection, though the first to be written, was inspired by Old Jews Telling Jokes, a television series that does exactly what you would expect from its title: against a white background, a silver-haired man or woman delivers gags older even than they are. There is nothing funnier than profanity coming from the mouths of babes—the meme that went round of a two-year old telling a monkey to fuck off remains the funniest thing I’ve seen in decades—or from the dry lips of a nonagenarian. The story, “Live from the Palladium” originally began with a kid telling an old Jewish joke and then turned into something less about humor—as I was expecting—and more about comedy, and how non-comedians use it.
Years ago, a British newspaper ran an exposé by the ex-wife of a hugely popular comedian—I’m being vague here as I can’t find any reference to it online and there’s nothing funny about litigation. In it she accused him of joking constantly, unable to cast off his stage persona. The idea of someone who could find nothing about which to be serious had been with me for a while, and in “Live at the Palladium” it lodged in Clive’s mother, a comedy obsessive, unable for a moment not to reach for an old joke or something culled from a long-forgotten performer.
Comedy can—and it’s very best always does—give us a deeper, more rounded understanding of the world around us: the way men and women live, the culture around us. But it can also be a deflection and a dereliction. A way to make time stand still. A way to speak, but actually to say nothing. In the story, Clive and his mother speak almost exclusively in quotations from comedy, make up their own routines. It is a kind of idioglossia, one that continues even in the presence of a new boyfriend perplexed by two people unable to look reality head on without a sideways glance. Their comedy is depressingly devoid of authentic humor.
The story went through the usual process of revision, until a friend—a sly wit himself—pointed out that the stand-up routine, which is its center-point, wasn’t working. “If you’re two comedy obsessives writing stand-up,” he said, “don’t you think you’d make it funny?” I said that the joke was that they weren’t funny, it would be wrong if they were. He said, “If you say it’s comedy, people expect laughs.”
I rewrote at length, cut back to the barest minimum. It was a discipline of which I had no experience: the sole purpose to make people laugh. Even the most abstract of comedy—Andy Kaufman, say—has that purpose. I mined the old comedy records, watched clips online. It took literally months to get a ten-line routine to where I wanted it.
A few months later I was stuck in a pub in the north of England, waiting for a train that started off late and got later and later. At the bar was a sign reminding patrons that the funeral for one of the regulars was being held the following week. I was the only one there, aside from the barmaid who was painting her nails. No music, just the rain skittering on the flat tar roof. A man came in and ordered a pint. Another man came in and ordered a pint. He said hello to the other man and then peered at the sign.
“Did I know him?” the man said.
“Course you did,” the other one said. “Came in on a mobility scooter. Used to drink whisky.”
“Oh yeah,” the man said. “Haven’t seen him in a while.”
“He were here last week.”
“Oh right. How’s his wife?”
“She’s been dead a year.”
“Oh yeah. He never recovered, did he?”
It was effortless. Had it been on stage, a Pinter play, maybe a forgotten Beckett, I would have laughed out loud, but in a strange pub with the wind howling outside, I buried my head into my book and kept listening. More men arrived. They told their jokes, laughed their laughs and I pretended not to hear, tried not to laugh along. Their humor gave them away, all of them: without knowing a single thing about them, aside from when they laughed, I felt sure I knew them.
This is something that the best fiction understands: that when people are together they are compelled to joke, to laugh, to smile. No matter how bleak, no matter how downtrodden, someone, somewhere will try to lighten the load. As Twain had it: The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.