“Laughter is what economists call a social or public good, since my pleasure from laughter does not detract from that of those who laugh along with me. Just the opposite, since a joke asks to be retold and the retelling increases the pleasure all around. The miracle of laughter, like that of the loaves and fishes, is that it increases as more partake.”
So writes F.H. Buckley in The Morality of Laughter (2003), and my experience confirms his observation. When I hear a good joke or encounter anything I find amusing, my instinct is to share it with people I’m certain will share my enjoyment. That’s a quality I look for in friends. Their enjoyment becomes mine all over again. A sense of humor is a notoriously idiosyncratic thing; paradoxically, it is also highly social.
Last weekend, Joseph Epstein published “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” in the Wall Street Journal. Epstein has a little fun with the incoming first lady’s use of “Dr.” as a title, though she is not a medical doctor. It’s a common affectation among academics. I’m shielded from its more gratuitous uses because I work for my university's engineering school, and rarely encounter this little vanity among engineers, scientists and mathematicians. The practice is common in the humanities, where egos battle like pit bulls for dominance and sport.
At least since Juvenal and Martial, pretentiousness and other forms of snobbery and pomposity have been classic targets of humor, satire and plain old ridicule. I had never heard of Jill Biden before reading Epstein’s column. I assumed the president-elect had a wife but I knew nothing about her. By Epstein’s standards, the column was modestly amusing. I didn’t laugh out loud, which I often do when reading him. In the larger body of his work I give it a B-. He briefly outlines some aspects of academic snobbery as I understand them. Then I learned his column had triggered tantrums in certain quarters and I remembered the other ongoing pandemic – humorlessness. My reaction was to send him a joke told to me by a computer scientist some years ago:
A woman screams, “Doctor! Doctor!”
A passerby replies, “I’m a doctor. How can I help?”
“It’s my husband. He’s had a heart attack.”
“I’m a doctor of philosophy.”
“Help, doctor. He’s going to die.”
“We’re all going to die.”
If you don’t get it, that’s fine. Jokes shouldn’t require footnotes. It’s funny or it’s not. I like it because it suggests the obliviousness to common humanity I’ve seen among so many academics. Such professors are less absent-minded than self-absorbed.