Let’s be grateful for such people. They come in many guises. Some are Falstaffian forces of nature – big, loud and always ready to create a ruckus. Such types are extroverts, boldly outgoing, and thus potentially obnoxious. They crave an audience, and that histrionic impulse can stifle our willingness to laugh. The messenger sabotages the message.
His opposite (with many nuances between them) may never crack a smile or raise his voice. He can be surly and poker-faced. He’s likely to be bent toward irony. He talks the way Buster Keaton looks. You may not laugh because you failed to listen closely. If you do listen closely, you may be bored or offended.
Humor and laughter are subjects best left unexamined. Nothing stifles the risible impulse more fatally than analysis. If you think Swift or Wodehouse is not funny, I’ll make no effort to dissuade you. If you need coaxing, the game is already lost. When we say someone has a good sense of humor, we are suggesting several, sometimes incompatible things: 1.) He likes to laugh. 2.) He likes to make others laugh. 3.) He finds the world an entertainingly ridiculous place.
All three qualities are laudable, in the right combinations and proportions. Some laughers are merely nervous and have learned that laughter is more socially acceptable than weeping. Some who like to make others laugh have no gift for it. Here we venture deep into bore territory, home to the guy who recounts in merciless detail that sketch on Saturday Night Live.
Then we have Comus, after Milton’s god of revelry, the name Max Beerbohm gives his closest friend, Reginald Turner, in the essay “Laughter” (And Even Now, 1920). He is a hybrid of 1.) (not so much), 2.) and 3.): “Incomparable laughter-giver, he is not much a laugher. He is vintner, not toper. I would not change places with him. I am well content to have been his beneficiary during thirty years, and to be so for as many more as may be given us.”
Beerbohm is more of a 2.) and 3.) man. One imagines his laughter was largely an internal, non-Falstaffian affair. Yet no one understood laughter better:
“The physical sensations of laughter, on the other hand, are reached by a process whose starting-point is in the mind. They are not the less ‘gloriously of our clay.’ There is laughter that goes so far as to lose all touch with its motive, and to exist only, grossly, in itself. This is laughter at its best. A man to whom such laughter has often been granted may happen to die in a workhouse. No matter. I will not admit that he has failed in life. Another, who has never laughed thus, may be buried in Westminster Abbey, leaving more than a million pounds over head. What then? I regard him as a failure.”
Beerbohm died on this date, May 20, in 1956, at age eighty-three. He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral.