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GP 19 October 2005: In Search of a Joke

A Good Man Is Hard to Find.  Flannery O’Connor’s first short story collection, A Good Man Is Hard to Find, came out in 1955, the “Good Man” probably the most remarked-on story in the book.  It combines humor and violence, links a character named Misfit to God’s grace, and still breathes a certainty about life that America enjoyed at mid-century (www.enotes.com/good-man). 

As we see it, she could just as well have said, “A Good Joke Is Hard to Find.”  That’s what Frank Brady thought.  A professor of English at Yale who labored in Frederick Pottle’s famously productive Boswell Factory (see www.ayrshirehistory.org.uk/Boswell/yalebos.htm), he taught his fair share of courses at a Yale at a time when even esteemed professors still dealt with students for a living.  At the beginning of the year, he warned his students that he only accepted late papers if the dawdling student could come up with an excuse that would make him laugh.  In twenty years, he said, only one rascal had cracked him up.  That student more or less blurted out that his 98-year-old grandmother had gone into hospital for a facelift, and he was at her side to hold her hand.  A good joke is hard to find.  Our hearts, our minds, our politics, even our purses are poorer for the dearth of wit here, there, everywhere. 

Tears and Laughter.  Kahlil Gibran, Joan Rivers, and Robert Herrick have all had Tears and Laughter, and yet we feel we should cast our vote for the succinct Herrick, whose poem captured mortality: 

Knews’t thou one month would take thy life away,
Thou’dst weep; but laugh, should it not last a day…. 

Life is about tears and laughter, in proportion.  Yet as we look around, we are finding rivers of tears, and a drought of laughter.  When we poke onto college campuses, where you used to find gala wit, there’s an awful lot of bathos and melodrama.  One chap who just moved into the Princeton University administration, a school which lies well out of New York in the pretty weeds of New Jersey, where it ought to be all sweetness and light, reports that the students there trail around in sackcloth and ashes.  This is true enough as well at all the other politically correct heavyweight campuses, which are all weighed down by their ponderousness.  In fact, we are delighted to hear that engineers at places like MIT, whom we once thought humorless, can still come up with a practical joke or two.  See, for instance, “MIT Schlag” on Global Province. 

The International Society for Humor Studies (www.hnu.edu/ishs/index.htm).  As well, you will discover, the ISHS is not very “international” and altogether lacking in humor. Most likely the members are the kind of people who would, in the words of comedian Stephen Wright, scrounge around for “another word for thesaurus.”  Even though it does hold its conferences abroad, a pretty good boondoggle, it has a stridently American board of directors and a domesticated bunch on its editorial board.  Inbred and not funny at all.   

The Funnies.  On a recent visit to the magazine store we found today’s funny books to be tours of dark worlds, more science fiction than comics.  Manga comics flourish in Japan and have spread into this country but they hardly turn the lights on (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manga).  The New York Times has just added a section to its magazine (soon to disappear we hope) that is called “the funnies,” but is decidedly Gothic.  See Elephantiasis at the Times.  Stephen Colbert, who on Monday kicked off his own spin off called the “Colbert Report” (www.comedycentral.com/shows/the_colbert_report/index.jhtml), a splinter from the unfunny Daily Show (www.comedycentral.com/shows/the_daily_show/index.jhtml), is distinguished, not because of his wit, but because of  his geeky manner.  He sums up the comic state of affairs in an interview with the New York Times (September 25, 2005)  where he reports on a phenomenon much worse than The End of History and the Last Man proclaimed by Francis Fukuyama in 1992.  The true apocalypse is the “End of Jokes,” which have all been carried off to the morgue: 

Deborah Salomon of the Times: I just read somewhere that jokes are less popular than they used to be.   

Colbert: You mean like, “Two guys walk into a bar”?  I think you are right.  I get e-mailed jokes a lot—by friends who are not in the business.  Jokes live on in e-mail.  E-mail has become a museum of jokes. 

Indeed, jokes by the millions have been archived in emails, but, just like those on the Comedy Central website, they are labored and lacking.  Relics.

Why the Tears?  Where has the funny gone, you ask?  Perhaps people are down in the dumps: the health statisticians do report that depression is growing mightily, not only in the United States but in all the developed nations, at great cost to the soul and to the economy.  Maybe too, people are working too hard: that condition is particularly acute in these United States, and it does not leave much time for horseplay.  And, as Austin designer Mike Hicks remarks, urbanities are now shorn of their second home and relegated to domestic caviar.  See “Caviar Emptor.” 

But we mainly lay the lack of laughter at the door of the live media, particularly TV.  Ideologists of all stripes accuse the media of all sorts of failings, often laying a bum rap at the feet of journalists, who are increasingly mediocre but not all that slanted.  The news and TV fare is downright repetitious, often nasty, and morbidly voyeuristic.  No wonder people wear dreary faces: Dr. Andrew Weil, if we remember rightly, is advising people to turn off their radios and TVs in order to feel better.  He’s got a new book out on Healthy Aging, and we assume that it includes laughter.  Man cannot live by scandal alone.  Networks and cable alike probably are bringing people down. 

Johnny Carson Dies.   On January 23, 2005, Johnny Carson died.  Probably a little bit of America died when his “Tonight Show” folded in 1992, which was, as we noted above, The End of History.  There were occasions during his 30-year tenure where his show reached 25% of America.  Even on a bad day, he reached 4 times the viewers that follow his successors Jay Leno and David Letterman.  With him ended a tradition in America where comedians could speak to and unite all of America.  

His predecessors were the great fellows on radio who made everybody in the family chuckle on Sunday night and gave all America immunity against Blue Mondays.  There was Jack Benny a.k.a. Benjamin Kubelsky, Fred Allen (John Florence Sullivan), Phil Harris and Alice Faye, etc.  Les Moonves, the top dog these days at CBS, has talked to his troops about bringing a lighter spirit to television fare, but this is easier said that done.

Oddly enough the best obituary for Carson’s show was “The Private Side of Johnny Carson” (www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/01/25/60II/main669087.shtml), which aired on CBS instead of NBC in 1977 and was re-broadcast just after his death.  In a rare interview Carson gave to Mike Wallace, he told us all we need to know about why he succeeded in spades, and why everybody who has come after has flamed out.  To paraphrase him, he said “it’s easy to make people think; it’s hard to make them laugh.”  He knew his job was to create laughter, lots of it. 

Preachers.  Years ago we were seated next to the actor/comedian Ed Wynn at a banquet and looked forward to the evening with relish (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ed_Wynn). Little did we know that he wanted to regale us with his wisdom about the doings of man, and no chortles were to be had.  He foreshadowed most of the so-called comic lights that bark out from the TV today—Jon Stewart, Don Imus, Howard Stern, Ellen DeGeneres, etc.  Their egos are hanging out, and they want to impress us with their gravitas, usually about matters we don’t care to hear about.  We are to understand from her boilerplate, for instance, that Ellen has a “brilliant observational humor style.”  All these people, with a mere fraction of the following that Carson had, have agendas and sub-agendas which make their antics very labored and which conquer spontaneity.  Worst of all, they want to be taken seriously. 

Carson knew this was not for him.  When Wallace queried him about his reluctance to take on big issues, he replied: “Well, I have an answer to that. I said, ‘Now, tell me the last time that Jack Benny, Red Skelton, any comedian, used his show to do serious issues,’” said Carson. “That’s not what I’m there for.  Can’t they see that?”

We have long known that art and propaganda don’t mix very well: eventually propaganda, not art, becomes the goal, and the audience races for the doors.  Preachy comedy is very divisive, and its practitioners are best called fractionators. 

Laughs. So where do you go when you want to chortle and not be lectured to by idiots? Little communities across America that have some vitality tend to give birth to some real kneeslappers.  Mahoot Media (www.mahootmedia.com), out in San Francisco, a marketing firm that targets South Asians in the United States, has put up a site called Badmash.org which has a following in several countries.  We are particularly fond of “AuntyGs,” which shows some Indian ladies bursting through the social conventions imported from India (www.badmash.org/auntygs.php).  Equally recondite are the IgNoble Awards that come to you from the folks at the Annals of Improbable Research (www.improb.com/airchives/paperair/index.htm).  We understand that real Nobel prize winners even hand out the prizes, all given to the 10 most ridiculous science projects around the world.  Peter Kindlmann of Yale University tells us that “the 2005 prize in Physics went to John Maidstone from Australia for an experiment to measure the flow of black tar through a funnel.  Begun in 1927, one glob drips every nine years.”  In economics, Gauri Nanda of MIT took the cake, for inventing Clocky (www.clocky.net), an alarm clock that runs away and hides. 

In other words, whether it’s Asian Americans or scientists, there are still a few people around that can laugh at themselves and bring the house down.  In “Canada’s Shrinkwrap Comedians,” we reported that our dour friends to the North have made a disproportionate contribution to North American giggles.  One reason, we have been told, is that the Canadian stage is forgiving and gives comics time to develop.  The American media sets people up to knock them down.  Asian Americans, Cambridge scientists, and Canadian hams are all well away from the mainstream media in the U.S. 

Swan Songs.  But there are a few celebrities, too, who have figured out that the best jokes are on them.  They have composed their own epitaphs in advance to play a trick on death, which we talk about on Global Wit and and Worldly Wisdom.  Johnny Carson without hesitation said that “I’ll be right back” would do nicely on his gravestone.  Ted Turner contrived, “I have nothing more to say.”  Martin Sheen offered: “What I'd like to be remembered for?  For about five minutes” (http://msnbc.msn.com/id/4703460).  Well, it all comes down to not taking yourself too seriously.  

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