A Funny Thing

This is reprinted from Musings on March 19, 2004.

The funniest thing I ever heard I forgot. I was in the photo darkroom at Yavapai College, in Prescott, Arizona, when I was twenty-one. There was a girl in there with me and we were joking around as usual. One of us said something that was so funny we both began to go out of control. It was one of those fits of laughter than keeps growing because something is so funny that every time you think of it, you see something even more hilarious, more impossibly, wildly ...

It took awhile for us to regain any normalcy. "What were we laughing about?" she asked. And to my chagrin I realized I had forgotten. At first I thought it was a momentary lapse from laughing too much and too hard. But it never did come back to either of us. So I discovered that you can't hold on to a funny thing. The funniest things I've ever heard, I forgot.

Another funny thing came in through the open window of Arnold's car one day, several years ago, when we were driving over to Half Moon Bay to buy sweet peas from a farm stand. We were talking about the dangers of driving a car after a close call on Highway One. He is from London, where, as in New York or San Francisco, you don't really have to drive if you don't want to. He said, "My parents never learned to drive a car, and I do believe that is why they are alive today."

I had one of those out of control laughs that hits a ten on hilarious, but I don't know what made that line so funny to me. I believe it was the logic he was expressing, which was that his parents were too innocent to be out there in traffic. And with this came an image of this sweet little couple sitting out in traffic, bewildered and endangered, brakes screeching and horns honking around them, while they waited to be creamed. And from this genetic pool, there appeared Arnold.

I realized that humor isn't always repeatable. Something can be funny one time, and then you can't figure out why it doubled you over with out of control freaking laughter. It's just once ... as a boy of about four learned at Big Sur Lodge one Sunday morning when I was trying to read the paper out by the swimming pool. The boy and his brother were running around and playing while their mom, like us, was drinking coffee and reading the newspaper.

The boy said something vulgar, which made me and my friends laugh. We didn't really laugh aloud, just that little smile and irregular snort of air. But the kid caught it and then he started saying the "punch line" over and over again. Finally the mother put down her paper and yelled, "Jesse, I told you before! One joke, one time!" And she picked her paper up and continued her reading.

I don't remember what the kid said, because it was irrelevant to the humor of the situation. What was funny was the intersection of two logics. I am used to parents trying to correct the vulgarity of their child by making them inhibit themselves. "Don't use the f word," or, "don't say shit, say poo."

But this woman did not want the boy to restrain himself in that way. She simply wanted him to be sophisticated enough to realize the impact of a joke is lost if you try to milk it for more laughs. She was a cool mom.

The impact of humor is surprise. Two lines of logic intersect, and at that moment of humor you live in an expanded reality.

Here is a joke from the opening of a book by Viktor Frankl on existential psychology (I am recalling the gist of it, not quoting out of the book):

A little boy comes to school late, and the teacher says, "Paul, why are you late?"

And he says, "When I started to school the ground was so icy, and the wind blowing so hard, that every time I took a step forward, I slid back two steps."

"In that case," the teacher inquired imperiously, "how did you manage to get here at all?"

"By giving up and starting back home," the boy replied.

A funny thing can contain the core of a philosophy. I'm not going to explain it because that wouldn't be funny at all.

Sometimes it's easy to think our sense of humor is the same as generations before us, but the evidence suggests that isn't the case. Abstract humor is something that evolved. In the early days of this country most humor was based in tall tales, exaggeration was the key element, in for example Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. "Just make it bigger!" "Tell a bigger lie!" The frontier equivalent of farting into the microphone. Some politicians retain a sense of humor that recalls the spirit of the frontier.

It was with Harold Ross' editorship of the New Yorker in the 1920s, and his having writers such as James Thurber and Dorothy Parker, that true abstraction came to the mainstream of American humor. "She turned on the radio and with a vicious snarl the radio turned on her."

The progression is that humor moved from great satire, based in exaggeration and metaphor, as in Jonathon Swift's "Gulliver's Travels," to abstract humor, which depends on an invisible line of logic suddenly flashing into view as it intersects a visible line. One that made me laugh out loud was from Willie Nelson's book, "Life and Other Dirty Jokes," about a car salesman who's looking out the window of the trailer and sees this guy kicking tires in the lot. He goes out and says, "Howdy. You thinking about buying a car?" And the guy says, "No, I'm gonna buy a car. I was thinking about pussy."

But abstract humor didn't begin with Ross and the New Yorker, of course. They just popularized it. In fact, the Creek Indians, one of the "five civilized tribes" of native Americans, had very abstract humor, and American Indians in general are far more humorous than their stereotype would suggest. The Creeks were in the southeast, especially Georgia and as far down as Florida.

The Creeks reportedly thought it was rude to say much of anything without putting humor into it, and they were difficult for the European style court system to deal with. I have heard that the old depositions of Creek Indians in legal matters, to be found in southern courthouses, make highly entertaining reading.

One example of the abstract quality of Creek humor was the story about the white trader who was weighing out supplies for the Creeks on a scale that had no weights. He'd just put his hand on it and say, "It's okay, my hand weighs a pound." The Creeks didn't want trouble with him, which they knew would happen if they suggested he was cheating them. So they decided to be tactful, and bring him a set of weights for his scale as a gift.

It didn't work. He got angry about it and pulled his gun, whereupon one of them grabbed him from behind and another one cut his throat. They started to leave, but the leader picked up the weight set to take with him. Then he looked down at the body and at the scale. He couldn't resist. He cut off the trader's hand and weighed it. And then he felt terrible because sure enough the hand weighed exactly a pound.

So another thing I realized about humor. Sometimes it weighs exactly one pound.

Once I was mad about an Italian woman because I thought she was so funny. She worked for the local Don, and when Frank Sinatra came to San Francisco he would dine in the basement of the restaurant, on grey folding chairs at a long fold out table, while the waitresses brought pasta and wine from the kitchen upstairs.

One of the waitresses, on hearing Sinatra was coming, began to put on makeup and look in the mirror at herself. Bianca's sarcastic voice cut through like a knife. "Oh, please! Lucia," she said. "The man is just old, he's not blind."

On another occasion the Don came into his gelato parlor, where Bianca was working that day. He was very self-important with the ladies, and they were usually suitably impressed. Except for Bianca. On this day he had purchased a new Mercedes that was worth about eighty thousand, and had it parked at the curb. He said, "Come and see my new Mercedes."

She walked out and got in behind the wheel, stuck out her hand, and barked, "Keys!"

He was confused and visibly deflated. "What?" she said incredulously. "You think I want to just sit in your goddamned car, Gino? Give me the keys." He began to nervously speak in Italian at her and she walked away with a detached and untouchable grace, back to serving ice cream. As usual in confrontations with her, he left deflated, and puzzled at how it had happened so quickly.

I found out sometimes the black needle is a funny thing.

My friend Rosalie's little girl, Joselyn, may have provided some of the funniest lines I've heard from a child. Her dad had come to take care of her while her mom when to work. She said, "Can I watch television?" He said, "I don't know."

She said, "What do you mean you don't know? You're the adult. I'm the kid. There's the remote."

Rosalie isn't married to Joselyn's dad, so once in awhile she gets asked out on a date. She related that a man took her and Joselyn out to dinner, and the man, trying to curry favor with the silent, aloof little girl, said, "Joselyn, would you like to pick out a table for us?"

"That one right there," she said.

"But that one's only for two people, honey," Rosalie observed.

"My point exactly," the child icily replied.

It's a funny thing how kids can cut right to the heart of the matter.

Posted: Tue - January 16, 2007 at 11:14 PM