The old woman brought her toddler grandson to the beach and watched placidly as he played in the sand at the water’s edge. Suddenly, a huge wave washed the child away. The woman rushed to the spot, sank to her knees, and cried out, “Oh great and merciful Lord — please take pity on this, your humble servant, and in your infinite kindness return to me my only little grandchild!” The next wave brought the child back to the exact same place on the beach, where he sat, blinking. The woman rose, crossed her arms, looked to the heavens, and stated firmly: “He had a hat.”
Why is this funny? We see this woman as a bit haughty, imperious in her dealings with the deity, and less than fully appreciative. Perhaps we know people like her, or recognize a bit of her in ourselves. Perhaps we realize that few of us are ever satisfied. A germ of truth makes this joke work.
A guy is staying at his girlfriend’s apartment. All she asks is that he walk her little dog while she is at work. He cannot tolerate the animal and the attitude is mutual. But he walks the dog through town. As he does, he passes an elegant saloon and realizes what a great thirst he has. But there is a prominent sign by the door: “No dogs allowed (except seeing-eye dogs).” He spies a drug store across the street, runs over and purchases a cheap pair of sunglasses, returns to the saloon, and proceeds to enter. “Hold up there, buddy!” he hears. “You can’t come in here with that dog!”
“But this is my seeing-eye dog,” he protests.
“That’s no seeing-eye dog; that’s a Chihuahua,” he is told.
And he exclaims, “They gave me a Chihuahua?”
Why is this funny? We see this guy as a bit shiftless and something of a con artist. But at the heart of this joke is absurdity; it is clearly ridiculous that he would try to pull off this caper. It is illogical — and isn’t everyone a little tired of logic all the time?
“A laugh’s the wisest, easiest answer to all that’s queer,” says Stubb, the second mate on the Pequod in Melville’s Moby-Dick.
Humor is a natural human reaction to the vagaries of Life. It would be interesting to know the brand of slapstick that our early ancestors practiced. It certainly existed. Every culture has comic outlets.
Oppressed people counted on humor to get them through the day. Jewish comedians come out of that culture, and so do Black comedians. There are jokes specific to every occupation and endeavor (“in-jokes”), political humor, ethnic humor (frowned upon), topical jokes, and, of course, “dirty” jokes. The fact that there are so many jokes dealing with sex only underscores what an important force it is in our lives; ditto relationships.
I meet with a bunch of guys every so often for dinner, drinks, and camaraderie. Part of the evening is given over to sharing; it could be poetry, song, or oratory, but 95 percent of the time it is jokes. A well-told joke is much like a poem, with a theme and an emphasis on delivery. Jokes are part of an oral tradition. We seek to entertain each other, but more than that we want to be understood. We want that inchoate head-shaking bewilderment about the world around us to be communicated. In some ways joke-telling is therapy, a survival mechanism.
The reward of a well-told joke is laughter. Laughter starts in the brain, of course, but quickly spreads through the body: the lungs, the gut (“a belly laugh”), and especially the face and even the eyes. A good laugh is a healthful thing. Here’s hoping you have one soon.