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Scents of Humor : Analyzing What's Funny and What's Not Isn't Always Good for a Laugh

December 03, 1989|Jack Smith

MORE THAN ONCE I have concerned myself with the nature of humor, only to conclude, as I remember, that no one really understands it. Most treatises on the subject are dull. The analysis of humor produces none. Perhaps the best definition of it was by P. G. Wodehouse: "The purpose of humor is to make people laugh."

Freud said that all humor is rooted in hostility. But what did Freud know? Was he funny?

Humor is said to contain surprise. That seems to be true. A joke with a point that can be foreseen is not funny.

Carl Reiner said the funniest joke of all is the absolute truth stated simply and gracefully. Easier said than done.

Mark Twain said, "The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven."

Robert Benchley said, "Defining and analyzing humor is a pastime of humorless people."

Of course, Benchley himself was not humorless; neither is Sol Saks, TV comedy writer and author of "The Craft of Comedy." Writing recently in the Writers Guild Journal, Saks risked being unfunny by trying to say what's funny and what isn't. "A good rule of thumb," he says, "is that you can say or do most anything if you can get a laugh while saying or doing it."

(You can also be told, "That isn't funny." Or get slapped.)

Saks observes that some words are funnier than others--"for reasons lost in the mists of creation." Mother-in-law, for instance, is funny, but father-in-law isn't. Brooklyn is funny but Albany isn't. Chevrolet is funny but Dodge isn't.

Saks says the funniest dog is the dachshund; the funniest economic status is rich; the funniest occupation is waiter; the funniest profession is psychiatry.

James Thurber said that every time is a time for humor. Obviously he didn't mean that everything is funny. There's nothing funny about the death of a child. But perhaps he meant that there is nothing so tragic that humor can't help relieve our grief.

I have never heard anyone admit to not having a sense of humor. People would rather admit that they lacked courage or common sense than admit that they lacked a sense of humor. One hopes one's grandchildren have a sense of humor, just as one hopes they have sound limbs.

We all know that seeing a dignified person slip on a banana peel is funny, and we know why. It's because we enjoy seeing dignity take a tumble.

But often humor is more subtle than that--and just as funny. One night recently, my wife and I went with our son and his wife and their three children to dinner in a restaurant on the Westside. My son was driving their Toyota van. All the unoccupied parking spaces outside the restaurant were marked COMPACT. My son, being a very responsible person, hesitated before parking in one. He wondered whether the van could be considered a compact. He decided that it wasn't that big and parked.

When we returned to the van after dinner, we found an empty space to the right of it and, parked to the right of that, a stretch limousine. It was glossy and cream-colored and looked about as long as a destroyer. Its rear end stuck way out beyond the end of the space. A very bored chauffeur sat behind the wheel.

"Look," I said, "there's a limo in a compact space."

This immediately struck everyone as funny. We all laughed. The chauffeur obviously was not amused. That made it funnier. I couldn't help shrieking with laughter.

My 12-year-old granddaughter was convulsed. After we had gotten in the van and driven away, she broke out intermittently into hysterical laughter. She kept saying, "A limo in a compact space!"

Obviously, that was funny because of the incongruity of it. A limo is a funny-looking vehicle to begin with. Parked in a compact space, it was funny the way a big man is funny in a suit three sizes too small. It was even funnier because the limo, an obvious symbol of wealth and ostentation, had been made to look ridiculous. It was still funnier because the chauffeur, who obviously identified himself with the limo, was embarrassed and angry.

At least I know my granddaughter has a sense of humor.

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