|Reading this essay at Sherman Public Library|
For very good reasons we say “joke telling” rather than “joke reading” or rather than “joke saying”. Reasons being, “joke telling” implies two important aspects of humor: 1) the act of speaking; and 2) a social context. “Reading” or “saying” could refer to both of those aspects as well, of course, although reading is usually at least superficially conceived of as a quiet, solitary activity. While “reading aloud” and “giving a reading” are two examples where reading is understood to be spoken with people, it’s revealing that there must be such emphasis for that sense to be conveyed.
On a deeper level, however, even though there are many imaginable ways of being humorous, humor is really always a communication, regardless of whether it is in private in a book or in public at a comedy club. When we laugh we are indicating to others and ourselves that we understand the humor, that what has been communicated is funny to us, that we get the joke. Joke-laugh is thus a kind of call-response not only whereby the teller asks for verification that the listener is present in the discourse of culture but also whereby the listener acknowledges the humor and in doing so essentially indicates that the teller is telling well. Obviously, humor is thus about communication, which word stems from Latin in the Middle Ages relating to “common”, “communal”, “shared”, and “united”. So, something is funny sounding when common language is put into play—when the ability of words to unite and share is brought into question in a playful way. Whenever we are joking there is almost always a kind of tense subtext, a sort of ruffling of the social fabric.
There are many ways of doing that.
We use multiple meanings, like the joke, “My dog has no nose. How does he smell? Awful!”.
There are jokes that utilize homonyms, such as “What’s black and white and red all over? A newspaper!”
There are homophonic puns, like the very reflexive “A pun is its own reword.”.
And, of course, irony, such as Mark Twain’s famous quip, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
These are all examples of the playful way language is typically pulled apart and snapped back together in a surprising way by humor with underlying tension. A noseless, pungent dog. The redness of blood. The lameness of the pun reword, which in modern parlance would probably be called a “dad joke”. And finally, Twain’s quip in particular, which is a great example of tension: one’s own death is an often-avoided topic, and so if it is broached via a juxtaposition of understatement it can be very funny indeed. We might even say that joking about one’s own death is an act of death-defiance, a laughing in the face or mortality.
Of course, there are many unsettling facts of living which when put in a humorous context can nevertheless bring us great joy. For some people and in some situations comedy is the preferable means of addressing those facts, actually. Anything said to be “too soon”, “in poor taste”, or “off limits” would be a subset of a larger collection of topics which are felt to be “sensitive”. Some folks might hear jokes about death as more disturbing than others would: an elderly person near the end of their life could be appreciably upset by a joke about dying, especially if that joke is told by someone much younger than them. See, this is how the teller and the audience are both integral to the context and every joke told is a situation in and of itself.
The most popular comedy is therefore the kind that transcends time and space, spanning cultures and generations. What “doesn’t hold up well” later is usually something that was already set within too narrowly specific cultural terms; as an example, there is a Marx Brothers scene in their 1932 film Horse Feathers in which a phrase of that time period is punned upon:
Secretary: “The Dean is furious. He’s waxing wroth.”Groucho’s character: “Is Roth out there, too? Tell Roth to wax the Dean for a while.”
“Wroth”, meaning “wrathful” or “full of anger” and having roots going all the way back to Proto-Indo-European, is now, in the 21st century, a very antiquated word. “Waxing” with the sense of “becoming” is less outmoded but still more often in English these days would indicate “a cosmetic procedure in which hair is removed from the body by the application and removal of wax”. Exhibiting more staying power is Groucho’s joke later in the movie in which he tells Chico Marx’s character, “You’ve got the brain of a four-year-old boy, and I bet he was glad to get rid of it.” The sort of timelessness of this line owes to not only its communication of relatively permanent terms that move easily through large amounts of time and space but also to its taboo subject matter: specifically, the death of a child. Another instance of sort of timeless humor is “Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.” Apparently the sentence has long had some relevance as an example in particular of the kind of syntactic ambiguity that would confuse artificial intelligence, even. But for our purposes here, it’s the cross-culture and cross-time aspects that are interesting, since time, flies, arrows, and bananas are so relatively universal.
It should be noted that the banana seems especially ripe with widespread and nearly perpetual comedic potential. Its phallic shape, slippery skin, and silly sounding name (“banana”) having both assonance and consonance have certainly long contributed to its ease of use as a funny object. Slipping on the peel of one, particularly, became a trope in the pratfalls of early 20th century American physical comedy. There’s a whole history of the banana in America, actually, that I will refrain from going into here much in the interest of time. In short, in the 1800s, before the advent of garbage hauling trucks, rotting banana peals were a danger in the streets of cities. People quite actually were slipping on them.
Tomatoes, too, now associated with the inverse—a negative reaction to a purportedly entertaining performance—have on a wide scale come to symbolize the audience taking the fruit power back, so to paraphrase. Rotten Tomatoes, maybe you know, is a website for movie reviews and aggregations of public opinions on movies, and it gets its name from the once more common act of throwing tomatoes (preferably in a rotting state so as to intensify their effect) at persons considered to have committed a social wrong. Until the 19th century some cultures—including American ones—grew the tomato only for decorative purposes and many people truly believed the tomato to be poisonous; its eventual translation to weaponry was therefore perhaps an understandable one.
So, on the one hand we have the banana representing the ability of the comedian to elicit laughter from the audience, and on the other we have the tomato representing the ability of the audience to elicit embarrassment from the comedian.
These two fruits, then, became important symbols in the discourse of humor—and eventually on a larger scale in the discourse of entertainment—due to their practicality, near cultural universality, and entertaining properties themselves: the slide-whistle sound of slipping on a banana peel; the satisfying splat of a soft tomato reaching its target.
When something sounds funny it is usually the result of surprise, juxtaposition, extremity, or absurdity, or some combination of these. Such features needn’t be strictly limited to association with concrete words, though. In 1960s, French musician Jean-Jacques Perrey joined with American composer/arranger Gershon Kingsley to make an album of synthesizer pop that would become The In Sound from Way Out!. In its day, the record seemed out of this world, both literally and figuratively, since they were among the first musicians to make mainstream electronic music and since the themes of their titles were mostly space-age—"Unidentified Flying Object”, “The Little Man From Mars”, and so on. Critical reaction to the album today, when popular music is steeped in electronic sounds, is less impressed by the inventiveness of the composition and construction (which included 275 hours of work and several miles of audio tape) and more inclined to see the music it contains as silly or irreverent, fruity in a word. Richie Unterberger of the AllMusic website, for example, writes:
The problem is, the end product—certainly after decades have removed the novelty value of electronic tones—is cheesy enough to skirt the boundaries of kitsch, with a boxy, mechanical texture and a music-box-run-amok feel.... There is a goofy charm to the mischievous placement of burps, gurgles, animal noises, and naive outer space-tinged themes. But with material that would be far more at home on the soundtrack of a children’s TV cartoon than a work of contemporary composition, this album is more of a curiosity than anything else.
A description of the album as a cheesy, kitschy, goofy and naïve curiosity might be satisfying enough to Perrey and Kingsley, however. In an 1998 interview, Perrey, when asked how he learned to produce “wacky” sounds using tape loops, answered:
Before I came to the United States, I met a man named Pierre Schaefer at the Studio of Contemporary Music Research in France. He showed me how to put prerecorded sounds together on tape. He was using the technique to create “serious” music, but when I came to the U.S. I wanted to use the technique to create humorous, popular music. I told him that I was going to America and was going to develop the process in a humorous way. I had his benediction.
“Serious way” versus “humorous way” and “contemporary composition” versus “cartoon music” are examples of power-steeped dichotomies that reveal as much about language and the speaker as they do about the subject matter. Unterberger’s implicit privileging of the serious over the funny is more obvious and one-sided than Perrey’s of the funny over the serious, and despite Perrey’s hint that he sees the popular and humorous as hand in hand, his tone is fairer and less judgmental in suggesting that the serious is not so much something he is undervaluing as it is just not really his inclination. To Unterberger, apparently though, the overtly comedic and populist intention and feel of The In Sound from Way Out! is damaging to its relevance.
If, ultimately, funniness (and lack thereof) is in the ear of the beholder, then the notion is relativist and anything and everything can be funny. Fine if people want to say that, but it doesn’t really help us understand what is commonly funny and why—what a given community or culture finds humorous at a given moment—and what that humor reveals about what we love and fear. The social aspect of humor determines democratically, in a way, how much quality a joke will have. The laughter a joke provokes, then—specifically the degree to which that laughter continues to take place across time and space—is the measure of that quality. Also, I would contend that seriousness need not necessarily be opposed to funniness, since each concept is dependent on the other for and by comparison. Laughing is obviously good for us, but like most things beneficial to our health it requires some amount of moderation. Too much straight-face and too much laughing can both be detrimental. Everyday life can be sometimes funny, other times serious, and countless shades in between that defy the funny/serious dichotomy. But most importantly, let’s see that humor itself is tense. In fact, metaphorically speaking, a joke is just the part of humor that appeals to us. The rest, made up of the hassles, annoyances, fears, and tragedies of everyday life, is the underlying fruit.