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Jack Smith

Even the courts have taken a serious look at 'humor': : We really can't define it, but we know it when we see it

March 19, 1987|JACK SMITH

Whatever humor is, nobody will admit he doesn't have a sense of it.

A man may admit that he is a murderer, a traitor, or a coward; but he will never admit that he doesn't have a sense of humor.

Nanette Fabray MacDougall writes that she found that out while serving on a federal commission.

"The government loves to do surveys," she says. "Statistics are the lifeblood of most federal agencies. Several years ago we did a survey of as wide a range of people as we could think of, covering ethnic, financial, age groups and so forth. We asked them to give an honest opinion of themselves.

"All they had to put on the paper was their age, sex, educational background and city of residence. We felt this would make them comfortable to give an honest answer to such questions as 'Do you think you are attractive? smart? successful?' We asked as wide a range of personal opinion questions as we could put together.

"What do you think was the only question that received a 100% yes answer? 'Do you have a sense of humor?'

"We puzzled over that for months. Why is having a sense of humor more important than believing one is attractive or wise or clever?"

As I previously noted here, humor is hard to define, and, oddly, the analysis of humor is invariably dull. As Samuel Johnson observed, "Comedy has been particularly unpropitious to definers."

In response to the column in which I made that point, I have received an eight-page, single-space typed letter from a man who argues that "analysis only increases the humor," and tries to prove it.

At great length, this fellow seeks to show that I didn't understand the jokes I told, and uses as an example Jack Kennedy's remark when asked whether a certain bill he was pushing was constitutional.

"You bet it's constitutional," Kennedy said. "It hasn't got a prayer."

My correspondent chides me for not trying to explain that excellent joke. "Several absent elements have to be located to make sense of this quip. One is the separation of church and state on such matters as (are) hidden behind what is constitutional; that is, this is not religious legislation. The second is that prayer is not supporting it, which would indicate that various churches interested in gaining public moneys are not behind it, perhaps.

"There is a pun here, which permits me to get into a theory aside. When one says, 'It hasn't got a prayer,' this may have no religious connotation but mean it hasn't got a chance. In that case prayer has two meanings, one an appeal to some presumably higher power and the other the element of chance. But there is always a third meaning at a minimum in all puns. . . ."

He then goes off for several paragraphs on the nature of puns.

I thought the Kennedy joke, like any good joke, was instantly funny. It is not improved by analysis, and I doubt that Kennedy analyzed it before he said it. He was simply a witty man.

Meanwhile I have received a letter from J. Anthony Kline, presiding justice of the State Court of Appeal, San Francisco, noting that he had declined to define humor in a recent opinion.

Appealing from a libel judgment, comedian Robin Williams argued that his remarks in a San Francisco night club could not be defamatory because "as a matter of law, a joke . . . is an irreverent form of social commentary deserving of constitutional protection. . . ."

"We rejected the argument," Justice Kline writes, "because we thought it falsely presumed that comedy or humor could be defined. . . ."

In his opinion Justice Kline wrote: "Mindful that judicial efforts to define a concept similarly resistant to explication, i.e., obscenity, have confused rather than clarified the jurisprudence of the First Amendment, and because, in any event, as we explain, no definition is here necessary, we decline to undertake what would almost surely prove a quixotic endeavor. . . ."

Though it declined to define humor, the court did rule for the comedian, holding that his remarks were "obvious figments of a comic imagination, impossible for any person to take seriously.

"For this reason, and in light of the occasion at which the joke was delivered and the attending circumstances, we conclude that, as a matter of law, it was not defamatory.

"To hold otherwise would run afoul of the First Amendment and chill the free speech rights of all comedy performers and humorists, to the genuine detriment of our society."

The court, finally, seemed to be saying, like the rest of us, "We can't define humor, but we know it when we see it."

Even the television comedy writer Sol Saks, in his book, "The Craft of Comedy Writing" (Writers Digest Books), doesn't try to define humor, but he describes what it does:

"There is humor in every aspect of our lives and environments. We use it to make friends, to turn away anger, to cover inadequacies, to earn a living, to get laid, to gain revenge, to sell beer, to spread sunshine, to endure the intolerable, to cover embarassment, to hurt and to heal. It is offered as a gift, or a blow, or a product for sale."

And in a cahpter called "The Comedy Writer's Survival Kit," Saks lays down a cardinal rule: "Never explain your joke. . . . If it works, don't analyze it."

If a joke has to be explained, forget it; it hasn't got a prayer.

And don't tell me I don't have a sense of humor.

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