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My Dinner With Dr. Peter : We Tried to Discuss Seriously What Humor Is. We Soon Began Telling Jokes

January 25, 1987|JACK SMITH

Back in the 1960s it was widely believed that God was dead, and humor seemed to have gone with him.

God seems to have made a comeback; I'm not sure about humor.

In the Iranian arms scandal, our political columnists and pundits tore their hair out with anguish and consternation, but except for Art Buchwald and a handful of cartoonists and maybe a few stand-up comedians, no one seemed to think that the Administration's predicament was funny.

If we can't laugh at a pratfall like that what can we laugh at?

My wife and I had dinner recently with Dr. Laurence J. Peter and his wife, Irene, in their Palos Verdes Estates home. Peter is the author of what may be the definitive aphorism of our time: "In a hierarchy individuals tend to rise to their levels of incompetence."

All about us we see the evidence of that truth, but it had never been so neatly encapsulated in words before. It means that our government, our corporations and even our football teams are run by incompetents, and all of us pay a price for that. But in one sentence Peter makes it funny.

Peter is also well known in academic circles for his scientific paper, "Einstein Revisited, or If Time and Distance Are Interchangeable, Why Is a 3-Minute Egg Only 2 Inches Long?"

Since Peter had a near-fatal heart attack a few years ago, he depends on humor not only to preserve the nation's health but also his own.

At dinner we tried to discuss seriously what humor is. We soon went on to telling jokes. As Robert Benchley said, "Analyzing humor is a pastime of humorless people."

A few years ago, scientists from seven countries met in Los Angeles for the Second International Conference on World Humor. It must have been a decidedly unfunny conference, but all conferences are a bore, except for the extracurricular activities.

These scientists formulated three theories on the nature of humor:

Humor is based on a sense of superiority.

Humor results from the juxtaposition of two incongruous ideas.

Humor comes from relief of tension or from pleasure in the indirect expression of forbidden urges.

An example of the first type is the Polish joke. It makes some people laugh because it makes them feel superior.

An example of the second might be John F. Kennedy's remark when asked if an educational bill he was pushing was constitutional: "You bet it's constitutional. It hasn't got a prayer."

An example of the third type is the sex-religion joke. Rabbi Cohen confesses that he tried ham once in his youth; Father Duffy confesses that he tried sex before his ordination. Rabbi Cohen says, "It's better than ham, isn't it?"

That joke was rated the most popular of 30 submitted in a poll of 14,500 men and women of various ages; but 7% said it was "not funny at all."

As George S. Kaufman said, "One man's Mede is another man's Persian."

Perhaps the best definition of humor was that of P. G. Wodehouse, the British humorist: "Humor is what makes people laugh."

Will Rogers was close, too: "Everything is funny as long as it is happening to someone else."

A couple of years ago Laurence Peter and Bill Dana, the beloved Jose Jimenez of Steve Allen's "Tonight" show, co-authored a book called "The Laughter Prescription" (Ballantine: $5.95).

Its thesis was that laughter keeps you well. It is crammed with jokes, one-liners, quips and prescriptions for laughter.

Some are familiar: "Anybody who goes to see a psychiatrist ought to have his head examined"--Sam Goldwyn.

Some are about death, since death is a fear that must be laughed away: "Death is nature's way of telling us to slow down."

Sex is a common source of humor: "Are birth-control pills deductible? Only if they don't work."

Lawyers and doctors are always fair game: Tombstone epitaph: "Here lies a lawyer and an honest man." Visitor: "Times must be bad. They're putting them two to a grave."

"My friend was operated on for kidney trouble, and four days later he died of heart trouble.When my doctor operates on you for kidney trouble, you die of kidney trouble, and it don't take no four days, either."

Humor is often found where it is not intended. Peter cites a line from the dignified Journal of Urology: "The concept of the bladder as an inert container of urine no longer holds water."

Humor is most salubrious when we laugh at ourselves.

Here's my definition of it: Humor is a way of looking at something that makes it funny. That may not be profound, but it's simple.

As Irene Peter said: "I'm not going to starve to death just so I can live a little longer."

Finally, remember Fred Allen's warning: "It's bad to suppress laughter. It goes back down and spreads to your hips."

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