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Jokes Tough to Judge: Humor's Funny That Way


I've never understood why it's considered bad form to speak ill of the dead. I mean, is there anyone who could care less about what you think?

I bring this up because of what I'm about to say: I never found Milton Berle funny.

I understand the impact he had on early television. And I know that he would make many people laugh so hard, they had stuff coming out of their noses. But he never did it for me.

As long as I'm on a roll, let me also say this: I never found Dudley Moore funny either.

Sure, he was OK in "Arthur," but I know a lot of people who play a better drunk.

So how come I never found either one funny, but millions of people did? The answer might rest in the nature of humor itself. Take being sad:

You put 20 people together, and chances are you can get them all to agree that something is sad--for example, a young father dies in a car accident.

Now ask those same 20 people to agree on what is funny.

For example:

Dan Quayle, Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton are traveling in a car together when a tornado comes along and sucks them up into the air. When they finally come down, they realize they're in Oz. They decide to see the Wizard and have this exchange:

Quayle: "I'm going to ask the Wizard for a brain."

Gingrich: "I'm going to ask the Wizard for a heart."

Clinton: "I'm going to ask the Wizard for Dorothy's phone number."

OK, everybody who thought that was funny, raise your hands.

Now, those of you who didn't.

See, that's the thing about humor. It's elusive. Sadness is universal; humor is personal. You find something funny or you don't. No one knows why. What tickles us is all tied up in what makes us tick.

The randomness of humor was demonstrated on a grand scale last year when a university professor from Britain set out to find the world's funniest joke.

After some 100,000 individuals across the globe weighed in, here is what was determined to be the world's biggest knee-slapper:

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are on a camping trip. Holmes awakens his companion in the night and asks him to "look up and tell me what you deduce."

Watson says: "I see millions of stars, and if even a few of those have planets, it's quite likely that there are some planets like Earth. And if there are a few planets out there like Earth, there might also be life."

Holmes replies: "Watson, you idiot; someone stole our tent."

Funny? Sure. Funniest joke in the world?

If you think that joke was good, or bad, consider this one:

"Why is television called a medium? Because it is neither rare, nor well done." That joke was a scream in Germany, a country whose people rated more jokes "very funny" than any other nationality. Hey, who knew?

The bottom line on humor is that, while we might know what is funny, we don't know what funny is. The subject is simply too broad to be parsed.

Just think of the number of forms humor can take. It can be lighthearted, warm, witty. Or it can be satirical, insulting, cruel. And we can find any of these approaches funny.

If all that isn't perplexing enough, why does humor evolve?

Why do I no longer find "The Smothers Brothers," "All in the Family" or "MASH" funny? Is it a matter of time, or the times?

If so, then why do I still find Richard Pryor and "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" so amusing?Analyzing humor is a lot like contemplating the universe. If you do it too much, you're just going to make your head hurt.

The funny thing is that of all the people who have tried to define humor--Aristotle, Plato, Cicero among them--you know who I think comes the closest?

Chuckles the Clown:

"A little song,

"A little dance.

"A little seltzer

"Down your pants."


Jim Shea writes for the Hartford Courant, a Tribune company.

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