Friday, June 2, 2017

"What's So Funny?"

If a joke is told in the middle of the forest and nobody hears it and the trees go
“We don’t get it” because they only speak “tree” can that joke nonetheless be considered to be funny?

(I was going to write “funny”, but that’s the entire issue in a “quote-shell”, whether there’s such a thing as a joke being objectively funny or is there always the inevitably qualifying “funny.”)

Once, at camp, for reasons I no longer recall – partly because it was a long time ago and partly because, as will be shortly apparent, I really messed up and I have a protective mechanism for forgetting when I really mess up, although not always, the distress of remembering reminding me why I invoked that protective mechanism in the first place – I made a joke that included the phrase, “angina pectoralis”, which is really “angina pectoris”, but I was trying to be funny.

Instantaneously, the girl I was trying to impress with my humorous jackanapes shot back,

“My father died of ‘angina pectoris’!”

Setting aside whether my off-hand remark was legitimately funny, it was not – and never would be

Funny to her.

I entirely get that.  “Wandering eye” jokes send my reliable “good” eye immediately searching for the exits.

Let us examine that for a second.  Not the “Wandering eye” part, which I am sure I will eventually make peace with.  It’s been seventy years but there’s time.

Oh, wait – “time.”  Let’s go there, instead.

“Temporal appropriateness”, famously aphorized as,

“Comedy is tragedy plus time.”

Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors inserts those words into the know-it-all character played my Alan Alda’s mouth, showcasing his boringly blowhardish pretensions, Allen invalidating, I think, the character himself not the actual aphorism, which has been mentioned by others, including comedy icons Lenny Bruce, Steve Allen and Carol Burnett, who, I believe, all meant it.

So there’s that.

But beyond the “time” conditional – or perhaps accompanying it – is the always-contentious “taste” conditional.  (These, of course, can also be separate concerns.  A joke can be tasteless without being “Too soon”, unless you believe that “taste” is merely a meaningless attribute neurotically repressed “sickos” made up to keep the truly liberated from audaciously “telling it like it is.”  Which is possible, although not in this blog.) 

Not long ago, we watched a PBS documentary entitled The Last Laugh:  Is it OK To Laugh At the Holocaust?

The documentary confronts the two aforementioned concerns – Is comedy really “tragedy plus time” (and if so how exactly much time?)  And, more generically, is everything potentially funny?

Or is it just “funny”?

Mel Brooks, enriched by The Producers, featuring the musicalized “Springtime For Hitler”, opined that Nazis are funny but the actual Holocaust is not, a debatable distinction but one Brooks steadfastly adheres to, his style of “deflating” the Nazis reminiscent of naughty children imitating their teachers. 

Making deflating fun was imaginably not a question of “time” – you could lampoon your Nazi tormentors right there in the concentration camp, as I am sure many trying to maintain their spirits and personal dignity did, although hopefully under protected circumstances, a self-preservationing practice emanating from the “Hey, you have to laugh” school of restorative comedy.

Other comedic eminences quoted in the PBS documentary – most of them a generation more distant from the atrocity – believe that nothing is “Off Limits” for humorous investigation, though offering the qualifying addendum:

“But it has to be really funny.”

The theory implies that if you’re going after the “big elephant “you better hit them dead-center in the heart, the prevailing opinion being that the more sensitive the subject matter, the better the joke has to be.  The “Great Joke” may truly be necessary.  But is it satisfyingly sufficient? 

“If the joke’s hilarious, no subject is taboo.”

Are you buying that?  I myself am not sure I am.

Professorially speaking, I believe there is an overarching distinction in play.  (Which, if you read carefully, you’ll know I have already delineated.  Not the most elegant narrative construction but sometimes that’s the best I can do.) 

Forget about “tragedy plus time.”  Reagan said, “I forgot to duck” after the assassination attempt and they hadn’t taken the bullet out yet.

And forget about taste.  When she was extremely young, my daughter Anna and I visited a broker at the World Trade Center, where she inadvertently left behind her then cherished stuffed animal.  When the buildings went down, along with natural feelings of horror and devastation was the supremely tasteless,

“Poor ‘Fifi’.”

Though I am ashamed to admit it, I laughed.  Call it an example of defusing “safety-value humor”, letting me at least partially off the hook.

Bottom Line:

I believe there is not such thing as “objectively funny.”  There will always be someone, based on specific circumstance, who’ll go,


Which means, more important than picking the time, is picking the place, less then the “When” of the joke’s telling than the “Where.”

(Note:  Controversial material aside, every comedian has experienced a particular joke that “killed” with one audience and “died” with another.  “It was a bad audience” and “My execution was off ” aside, what does that say about the inherent funniness of that joke?  Or any joke?) 

Mel Brooks, I believe, came closer to hitting the relevant bulls-eye when, as the 2000 Year Old Man, he proclaimed,

“Tragedy is when I cut my finger.  Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”

If it’s not you, it’s funny. 

The thing is,

There is always a “you.”

And if that girl from camp remembers and is reading this,

I am really sorry about your Dad.

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