Thursday, May 07, 2015

`Common Sense, Dancing'

I am able to remember, from set-up to punchline, precisely seven jokes, most of them first related to me by the succession of barbers I’ve patronized over the years. Like bartenders and cab drivers, they, by the nature of their job, spend much of the day in a state of enforced intimacy with individuals not always of their choosing. To keep things at least passably amusing, they listen to and pass along a lot of jokes, most of them lousy, a few memorable. Some of us can’t imagine sitting for a humorless barber, regardless of how gifted he is with the clippers. I patronized a barber in Albany, N.Y., for nineteen years, and to him I owe most of my modest joke repertoire. Here’s the only one I can tell in mixed company, and it dates from about twenty years ago:

“What has forty legs and three teeth?”
“The front row of a Garth Brooks concert.”

This one starts by masquerading as the kind of riddle a kid might tell. Its effectiveness depends on the listener’s willingness to accept an abrupt shift in meaning or logic. Groucho specialized in this sort of thing. A joke is a contract between giver and receiver. If the receiver is unwilling or unable to accept sudden, unexplained shifts of reasoning – if, in short, he is humorlessly dim -- the joke will flop and the receiver will be left confused, angry or offended. The same is true if he doesn’t recognize the name of Garth Brooks or the nature of his presumed audience. By joke-logic, you can be a country-music fan, even an admirer of Brooks, and still find the joke amusing. That’s a lot of assumptions in a culture where people spend their days cultivating opportunities to be offended.

In his first collection of essays, Familiar Territory: Observation on American Life (Oxford University Press, 1979), Joseph Epstein devotes one to “Jokes and Their Relation to the Conscious,” a title that is itself a nice joke played on Sigmund Freud. Epstein says he “adores” jokes, a quality I presume to share, but he goes on to clarify his meaning:

“In saying this, I do not mean to say that I am a fine fellow, of that caste of special and superior beings: the good-humored. I used to think that a sense of humor was an absolute requirement for friendship; and while it is true that most of the people I count as friends enjoy laughter, so, alas, do many people who are frivolous, or cynical, or even vicious. Idi Amin, I understand, enjoyed a joke, too.”

In other words, a fondness for jokes confers no moral status on teller or receiver. It just makes life more interesting. An “absolute requirement?” No, but I’ve never had an intimate friendship, one capable of sustaining joy and grief, with a terminally humorless person. My truest friends would agree with Epstein:

“. . .finally a joke is a joke, and the way to tell if it is any good or not is to notice, after you have heard it, whether you are smiling. If you are doing so out of more than politeness, it is a pleasant joke; if you are laughing, it is a good joke; if you rocked with laughter, your eyes watering with laughter, it is, quite possibly, a blessed joke.”

The gift for telling good jokes, or enjoying them, is not identical with having a vigorous sense of humor. Rather, it is a peculiarly social subset of that larger capacity. (I’ve known compulsive joke-tellers who are pathologically bereft of humor.)  I’m not much of a joke teller (or rememberer), though I enjoy the company of those who are. A sense of humor can be a handy litmus test for sanity. Lenin never laughed. In his recent review of Saul Bellow’s There Is Simply Too Much to Think About, Martin Amis (not a notably humorous fellow, unlike his father), quotes a splendid observation by Clive James that I had never read. It comes from a piece James wrote in 1979 about Alan Bennett:

“. . . common sense and a sense of humour are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humour is just common sense, dancing. Those who lack humour are without judgment and should be trusted with nothing.”

1 comment:

Subbuteo said...

Being restless with language and with reality might be one definition of a sense of humour. Like Groucho Marx, one just can't resist picking it apart and rearranging it to see what happens, sometimes with wonderful results.