Monday, August 31, 2009

Thoughts on Humor

Two things are funny: exaggeration and reversal.

For instance, if I ask you for $1.25, is that funny? No. One time, Mark Twain wrote a letter to Andrew Carnegie, the richest man in the world at that time. The letter said, “Dear Mr. Carnegie, You seem to have achieved prosperity. Could you please send me $1.25 to buy a prayer book. God will bless you. I feel it. I know it. So will I. P.S. Don’t send the prayer book, send the $1.25; I want to make the selection myself.” (If I should ever happen to meet the employee in charge of handling Bill Gates’s correspondence, I would like to ask him how many requests they’ve received for prayer book funding.)

Have you ever purchased some merchandise, found it unsatisfactory and tried to return it? That’s not funny. However, if a man walks into a pet store and tries to return the parrot he bought an hour earlier because the aforementioned parrot is dead, and the clerk tries to persuade him that the Norwegian parrot is merely asleep, pining for the fjords, you have the makings of a comic masterpiece. Further, the parrot is not merely dead, it is deceased. It is no more. It has joined the choir invisible. If you hadn’t nailed it to that perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. That is an ex-parrot.”

They make jokes about Pam Anderson. A generation ago, about Raquel Welch. A generation before that, Mae West. I once told a female friend that, while I thought her breasts were excellent, they weren’t very funny. Fortunately, she did get the joke.

I’m friends with a fellow who is quite large, someone would say Brobdinagian. A few years ago, when he was laid up with knee surgery, I was tempted to inquire if he had suffered an injury as a result of falling off of a beanstalk.

Some humor combines both exaggeration and reversal. Several years ago, Leona Helmsley went to jail for income tax evasion. She will always be remembered for her comment, “Only little people pay taxes.” If the writers at Saturday Night Live, they would have arranged for an outraged editorial reply from Shaquille O’Neal and he pays millions of dollars in taxes.

In Back to School, Rodney Dangerfield portrayed the owner of a chain of big and tall stores. In a commercial he asked, “Are you big? Are you tall? When you jog, do you leave potholes? When you make love, do you need directions? (And my personal favorite) When you go to the zoo, do the elephants throw you peanuts?”

I’m not particularly fond of Joan Rivers’s brand of comedy, as she often comes across as mean-spirited. In real life, however, she had an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone. As a teenager, she was fixed up on a blind date. When the gentleman arrived, he took one look and bolted. Many years later, she saw the man, who had no memory of the incident. He was quite taken with her. After all, she was now the famous Joan Rivera. He had no idea that she was contemplating harming him in serious ways. Ironically, Laugh-In did a sketch about a similar situation that turned out to be quite hilarious. (Yes, I remember this bit forty years later.) The setting for the sketch was that in a parallel universe, everyone wears glasses, has freckles and bizarrely askew hair. Dick Martin plays an obnoxious young man who, upon arriving to meet his blind date, announces that he is not going to go out with, “a dog.”

Ordinarily, that would be a horribly cruel thing to say. However, in the sketch, the woman being so cruelly insulted is Raquel Welch, the audience was howling. They even managed to come up with an excellent ending for that sketch. Raquel pretends to fight back tears and finally says, “Don’t you think I wish I could be beautiful?” She frizzes her hair, crosses her eyes and blows a raspberry. At which point, Dick Martin falls head over heels for her. Moral of the story, if you’re Raquel Welch, you always come out on top.

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