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What's So Funny

By Scott E. Roeben

People often ask me "What makes something funny?" I like when they ask me about this subject, mainly because it allows me to not talk about inertial guidance systems for one damned minute, thank god.

However, I am not the arbiter of what is funny. This has less to do with the fact that I do not know what an arbiter is than the fact that humor is subjective. Like shoes. The identical pair of shoes may be viewed entirely differently by everyone who looks at them. Except for Birkenstocks, that is. We're all pretty much in agreement that those are as ugly as an inbred rat.

And like an inbred rat, humor can't be readily explained. Sure, theorists—many possessing heads so large they must pay to have their scalps let out—will say they have a handle on what makes something funny. You can often hear the theorists speaking to each other about this in indignant tones.

"Humor results from incongruity," one theorist will snipe.

"Juxtaposition," another will exclaim, his or her head listing to one side due to its gargantuan girth.

"Exaggeration," yet another theorist will state.

"Wait a minute," another will snarl, "you're not a theorist. It's obvious you're a hypothesist."

"I am not."

"Yes, you are," the others will chime in. Then they will begin to punch and kick the hypothesist. He will quickly hemorrhage and be taken to a hospital where medical care will be refused because hypothesists have a terrible HMO, as if the phrase "terrible HMO" weren't the most glaring redundancy ever uttered.

But you see my point. No simple theory of humor can explain the universality of laughter. No scientific postulation can account for the laugh mechanism we're all endowed with even in our earliest months of life.

Yes, our laughter begins when we are very young. As infants we laugh a lot, or at least it seems like laughter, anyway. That's what they tell me. To tell the truth, I don't spend all that much time around babies. It's probably because we don't have much in common. For example, babies cannot speak English—except for Asian-American children, of course, who can often spell words like "ultracrepidarianism" in their third month of life. In addition, babies do not drive, which places an undue burden on the people around them. To add insult to injury, infants rarely offer gas money. Surprisingly, most babies do not even have wallets. Finally, babies rarely download pornography from the Internet. No, babies and I have absolutely nothing in common.

As babies become children, they also expand their understanding of what constitutes humor. References to "poopy" spring immediately to mind.

During adolescence, the years between infancy and sex, we discover that an ability to be humorous can be very useful. This has lead to the development of "class clowns," those entertaining individuals responsible for such clever comedic innovations as: a) tripping people, b) taping a note to someone's back which states "kick me," or c) flicking another kid's ear until he is driven to horrifying nightmares and eventually a shooting spree which local media will blame on listening to rock music performed by grown men wearing mascara.

As we become adults, we seek out and pay a high price for humor. We buy CDs featuring comics, we attend comedy clubs, we buy books and magazines featuring humor and many of us watch Andy Rooney who is rumored to have been humorous at some point, except not during my lifetime so I can't confirm that one way or the other.

Our appetite for humor is ravenous. Much like our appetite for Rice Krispie Treats, except that humor does not inevitably give you thighs as thick as Roman columns.

There have been many observations about humor. Several of them are likely to follow this colon:

"Probably it is impossible for humor to be ever a revolutionary weapon. Candide can do little more than generate irony." (Lionel Trilling)

"Never say a humorous thing to a man who does not possess humour. He will always use it in evidence against you." (Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree)

"Humor has been a fashioning instrument in America...Its objective—the unconscious objective of a disunited people—has seemed to be that of creating fresh bonds, a new unity, the semblance of a society and the rounded completion of an American type." (Constance Rourke)

What do all of these observations have in common? First, they are all made by people we have never heard of, with names which are surely the result of a dare, like Constance or Beerbohm. This is significant, although in what way we have no idea.

Second, observations about humor are often as incomprehensible as a poorly translated VCR instruction manual from the far east: "Having laid the happy taping article into the tape chasm, make the START button object approximately touched for yourself."

Finally, all observations about humor, without exception, are as far from being funny as they can possibly be without being a Vice President.

All this perhaps leads us to the conclusion that humor defies understanding. Which we pretty much knew going into this article, if you think about it. Which perhaps leads us to the conclusion that the world is, indeed, contradictory. From contradictions come incongruities, and from incongruity comes humor. Which perhaps leads us to the conclusion that the world is, indeed, cyclical. And repetitive. And rambling. And often pointless.

Like an inbred rat, or something comparably incongruous.


Scott Roeben, 2000. All rights reserved.