The sun came out today and just in time. High pressure system from the north and it fills me with a joy that is hard to express after weeks of rain. Just to see the sun and have the rain stop beating on our roof, feels like a Hawaiian vacation no matter that it's 38 degrees.
I love listening to jokes. To get myself through the last month of solid rain I started reading jokes, and telling them. Rather than listen to my friends talk about the weather I asked if they had heard any new jokes. Young Finn Straley and I like to talk about jokes and how they work. He sent me this one by a master joke writer by the name of Jack Handy formerly of SNL.
“To me, clowns aren't funny. In fact, they're kinda scary. I've wondered where this started and I think it goes back to the time I went to the circus and a clown killed my dad.”
Now I'm not going to parse this out to see why it is funny. I just think it is. What I love most about this joke is how well written it is. I've tried to tell it several times from memory but it you get one word or phrase wrong in the telling, the joke falls absolutely flat. Comedians, like my son, spend years trying to learn the secrete of this. They talk about timing; the "set up' and "the turn", the "payoff." It's almost as if a great joke has the requirements of a fine haiku. Which I think in a way they do,
I think funny stories in America almost always have a three act format, or three beats. You know this of course, the duck walks into the bar two times asking for a gin and tonic, until the bartender gets upset and tells him that he is going to nail his bill to the bar if he asks again. So of course on the third time the duck walks in and asks for some nails.... when the bartender doesn't have any nails... boom... the duck asks for a gin and tonic. Three chapters, three beats. "The Rule of Three".
I've read in oral histories, many stories in the Native American Traditions have a four part structure. Four directions, two pairs, a balance in the cosmos. Native stories will often have the Coyote coming back three times before the pay off. Just different.
The horrible thing is that although there is clearly a structure... the joke structure is slippery and can be changed by intonation and context. Unlike haiku, jokes are not so easily prescribed. No hard fast rules.
A cowboy walks into a bar and sees a sign hanging over the door that reads: CHEESEBURGER: $6.50 CHICKEN SANDWICH: $7.50 HAND JOB: $10.00
He walks up to the bar and beckons one of the three exceptionally attractive women serving drinks. "Can I help you?" she asks. "Excuse me mam, I was wondering," says the cowboy, "Are you the one who gives the hand jobs?"
"Yes," she purrs. "I am."
The cowboy takes off his hat and says,"Well, I'm wondering if you would wash your hands because I would like a cheeseburger."
I love this one too. So, still a basic three act play, the structure is here. But here is another great thing that humor does, the suspension of disbelief of the totally implausible premise. As a story teller if you get them buying into your dumb premise. (a restaurant that would have hand jobs on the menu) your audience is starting to laugh right from the beginning. You've hooked them. Good jokes are somehow irresistible. Then in this joke once they are hooked, the joke takes a different turn for the payoff.
When I heard the joke it wasn't a cowboy. I added that. I added that because I happen to know that cowboys while rough, and they like talking about sex, they are mostly pretty fastidious about their food. It just rang true to me that the man was a cowboy.
There is a whole complicated issue of what men find funny and what women find funny. Of course imbedded power assumptions can get both men and women riled up. I believe this is because there always has and always will be, a great deal of tension between men and women, and where there is tension there is the need to find relief through humor. When I was young I thought rough sex talk was wholly the providence of men. Of course that wasn't true, I just hadn't been allowed into the company of women who talked openly about sex. I wasn't intimate with women who told funny stories to relief the tension of their lives of subjugation, but of course they were out there. Cowgirls I met were rough and told ribald stories, and of course bartenders and other working women told rough jokes in which men were the object of their ridicule. Always, where there is conflict there is the potential for a good joke. Now, of course women play on the same field as men when it comes to humor, even if they sometimes don't get the same respect in the world of comedy.
Here is something else weird that the last joke illustrates: Hard, percussive sounds are somehow just naturally funnier than soft sounds. If the cowboy asks for a hamburger at the payoff. It's just not as funny as "Cheeseburger". Cheeseburger is a funnier word than Hamburger. Don't ask me why. Comedians say that "K" sounds are funnier that any other. Some say this is because of the Yiddish influence in American humor. The explosive and guttural sounds of that language had a lot to do with early stand up comedy that came to us from Vaudeville.
In one of my favorite movies, "Caddyshack" Rodney Dangerfield was given a line to say, something like "Hey that gopher just stole my ball!" but he ad-libbed a much funnier line when he said, "Hey, that Kangaroo, just stole my ball!" Try it with any other animal. Kangaroo is just funnier.
Humor wants us to resolve our conflicts in ways that are outrageously silly and life affirming. Sure there is dark humor and plenty of jokes about death, but they are told by survivors. When I was little my parents took in eastern european families who had survived the War. I was very young, but I do remember there was a lot of laughing around our table. Humor is a survival technique. Many comedians are sad and frustrated people. Their lives were rich in conflict.
Can you train yourself to be funny? I have no idea. There are clearly ways to be funnier. Joke telling is a proven therapy for autistic children. Telling jokes opens up their sense of emotional relationship. Teach them to tell jokes and they begin to see how they can participate in an emotional world. One which might remain essentially mysterious to them but one that they can master and enjoy. There are very few rules for how to make people laugh. Finn tells me that being funny in public requires an instinct that you hone by doing it over and over and over again, getting up and telling a joke and seeing what the reaction is then going back and editing it. Comedy is not hierarchical because the audience is empowered to make the judgment. Funniness is anarchic and mysterious, there are rules but they are so evasive, as to be almost maddening. A good comedian should be able to make any audience laugh. What is funny? It's almost like asking how to spin gold from straw.
Three mice are sitting in a bar in a very rough part of town. They are bragging about how tough they are. The first mouse says, "When I see a trap, I lay down on it trip the latch and catch the bar in my teeth, then do bench presses with the bar, to work up an appetite, Then I eat the cheese and leave.
The second mouse says, "That's nothing, when I see some Rat Poison, I take it home and grind it up into my coffee so I have a good buzz going all day long." Then the two mice look at the third.
The third mouse says, "This is a bunch of Baloney. I've got to get out of here, I've got to go home and fuck the cat."
Crass yes, but something about joke telling ties us to some physical and much older part of ourselves, it may be the one vital oral tradition that is still alive today. Men and women telling jokes about each other, is an ancient art form that ties us all the way back to myth, when we saw ourselves as animals. Again what people forget about the oral traditions, what people forget about Native American culture is how funny the stories can be, and how all people like to get together and laugh. We all have this in common.
This silliness, wordplay and gentle combat is what makes us able to tolerate each other, even when we spend six weeks listening to the rain.
Clear night, half a moon
sits above my writing shed
waiting for her cow.