Coca Cola, Colonel Sanders' "seventeen herbs and spices," and my Aunt Thyra's angel food cake all share one thing in common: no one else in the world knows its secret or can exactly duplicate it. The same is true with humor: each of us has our own recipe for what is funny to us.
There are large general areas of common ground in humor: slapstick--slipping on a banana peel, being hit in the face with a cream pie, etc.--seems universally acknowledged as funny. And those who have attempted to analyze humor tend to agree that the basis of humor is surprise; the unexpected. But it must be harmless surprise; being hit by a bus while crossing the street is unexpected, but generally not funny. You can tell a lot about a person by what makes him (and no, once again, I refuse to dance to the "him/her/PC Polka") laugh.
I treasure my own sense of humor, even though what I find hysterically funny often leaves everyone else glassy-eyed. (A classic Charles Addams cartoon leaps to mind--a theater audience in which everyone is sobbing except one typical Addams character, who has a huge smile. Now, Charles Addams is funny.)
I stand in awe of stand-up comedians and those people at parties who keep everyone else in stitches. Timing, surprise, body language are all part of it but again, every comedian's--every person's--humor contains indefinable elements which sets them apart from all others. I personally never found Bob Hope particularly funny whereas I love Bobcat Goldwait, Bill Cosby, and Bob Newhart.
But for as much as I love jokes, I simply cannot tell them. I either put the punch line somewhere in the middle or forget it entirely. My timing is lousy and my nearly every attempt to tell a joke has resulted in a deafening silence--or worse, a small, condescending smile--from the listener.
I regret that I have not had a good, leaves-me-gasping-for-breath belly laugh in far too long a time. But my humor has always tended more toward the offbeat and subtle, like the cartoon of a man at the counter of a veterinary office, with a large box from which four paws stick rigidly up in the air. The man is saying: "He won't eat."
A joke written and a joke told are quite different, with the joke told aloud by a good storyteller having additional power of timing, inflection and the placing of emphases. One of my favorite jokes, which definitely benefits from an oral presentation, is of the parrot with extraordinary skills. It can do card tricks, dance...everything but talk. Its owner works diligently with the bird every day for a year, but all he can teach it to say is "Polly want a cracker." One day, after yet another failed attempt to get it to say something other than "Polly want a cracker" the man gives up, puts the cover over the parrot's cage, and goes out for the evening. A while later the parrot hears something and lifts up the bottom of the cage cover to see burglars in the house. Carefully, it opens the door to its cage, slips down between the cage and the cover, slides down the pole, and makes its way to the telephone. Lifting the receiver, it dials 911. When the responder asks, "What is your emergency," the bird puts its beak close to the mouthpiece and whispers, "Polly...Want...A...Cracker!"
And I take delight in the story of the proud grandmother who takes her young grandson to the beach. She has bought him a little sailor suit complete with a little white sailor hat for the occasion. As she is sitting on the beach, her grandson wanders down to the water's edge, where a huge wave sweeps in and carries him out to sea. The hysterical grandmother races up and down crying for help then falls on her knees and implores God to save her daring grandson, the light of her life. And a moment later, another wave rushes in and deposits the boy at her feet. Weeping with joy, she hugs him to her, then suddenly rears back and holds him at arm's length. Glaring up toward heaven, she says, "He had a hat!"
I guess you had to be there.
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