We all know those unhappy souls who work hard to be thought of as comedians. Every family, every workplace, has one. They exert themselves to be funny. It becomes a tic. They memorize jokes and foment puns. They have been told they are funny because the people in their lives don’t wish to be honest and cruel. Worst of all, when no one laughs at their efforts, they do. Their attempts at humor are desperate and straining. They tend to be sad cases and make those around them uncomfortable and sad.
In his 1977 biography, W. Jackson Bate identifies four qualities in Dr. Johnson that combine to form his “gift for humor.” First, his “ready and fertile wit,” followed by a gift for mimicry, the “refreshing and contagious gusto with which he could throw himself into things” and “his own gift for laughter.” That final point is particularly interesting. Some of us enjoy making others laugh because we enjoy laughing ourselves. Many have pigeonholed Johnson as a conservative, a grim moralist and a depressive fearful of his sanity. All of these descriptions are true and all are ideal goads to humor.
Sir John Hawkins, Johnson’s first biographer and a man notably unburdened with humor, wrote that “in the talent of humour there hardly ever was his equal, except perhaps among the old comedians.” Mrs. Thrale remembered Johnson saying that “the size of a man’s understanding might always be justly measured by his mirth.” Boswell reports: “Johnson’s laugh was as remarkable as any circumstance in his manner. It was a kind of good humoured growl. Tom Davies described it drolly enough: ‘He laughs like a rhinoceros.’” Max Beerbohm writes in “Laughter”: “Echoes of that huge laughter come ringing down the ages.”