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[Chalice] What's So Funny? I Don't Get It [Chalice]

"What's So Funny? I Don't Get It" Was also recorded live.
26:57 minutes - 11.32 MB - What's Funny .mp3.

Presented April 1, 2007, by Steve Wiegenstein

Knock, knock.
--Who's there?
The Interrupting Cow.
--The Interrupt . . .

You now know the level of my sense of humor. I'll admit it, I am a sucker for lame jokes, the lamer the better. I also like my humor absurd and a little self-referential, especially if language itself is involved. I guess I'd have to describe my sense of humor as simple.

I vividly recall my first attempt at an April Fool's joke, when I was about 11. Having read about such jokes and seen them on Candid Camera, I switched the salt and sugar at our breakfast table and sat back, waiting for the surprise and hilarity. There was surprise, all right. My father, the victim of the joke, was by nature a simple and inoffensive man, and he expected everyone else in the world to be the same. He just sat there with a hurt look on his face. My mother, who was a child of the Depression, was shocked and annoyed at any waste of food, much less a deliberate waste, and I could feel their disappointment as she dumped out a perfectly good bowl of cereal and washed out the bowl. I slunk off in shame, and as you might imagine, I didn't attempt an April Fool's joke on anyone for a long time afterward.

At junior high and high school, though, April Fool's jokes were quite the rage. It seemed like kids could never get enough of odd pranks to play on each other - and especially on those students who had "joke victim" written on their faces somehow: the odd, the slow, the different in some way. Here's a relatively harmless example - I blush to think of the less harmless ones. A group of confederates would gather around the intended victim, and one of the group would begin to tell a joke. The joke would build and build until the teller reached the punch line, and no matter what the subject of the joke, the punch line was "radio!" Everyone would laugh uproariously at the supposedly hilarious joke except the sucker, who would be left nervously laughing without knowing why. You either had to pretend you got the joke, or be stuck saying the words everyone dreaded - "I don't get it."

"I don't get it" is the cry of the clueless, the sign that you are not in on things, not as clever as everyone else. We all hate to be the one who doesn't get it. This observation leads me to think about humor in general, and about getting it.

By the way, if you were wondering about what I was saying at the beginning, about liking my humor self-referential and about language itself, here's an example: What's brown and sticky? A stick.

Our daughter is taking a course in political humor this semester, which is perfect for her, because number one, she is a very funny person herself, and number two, she loves comedy and comedians and will watch them for hours. Every time she comes home, she brings new tidbits about the theory and uses of humor. Here's one: jokes have three participants, the teller, the subject, and the audience, and they differ according to who among those three holds the power. For example, think about a boss telling a joke about an employee to another employee; an employee telling a joke about another employee to the boss; or an employee telling a joke about the boss to another employee. In the first instance, the joke is a demonstration of power - you have to laugh, or else. In the second instance, the joke is an appeal to power, or in common terms, it's "sucking up." In the third the joke is a critique of power. It's pretty clear how these situations can differ in moral terms.

Looking at my own life, I realize that a lot of the moments I regret the most have come from making humor at someone else's expense. It's always easier to make a joke than to retract it, as countless public figures have discovered.

Still, we need humor. It restores our perspective sometimes. And it provides an important counterweight against the powerful. The scholar John Morreall talks about three functions of humor: the critical, the cohesive, and the coping. You can see all three functions in some of the most common types of humor, such as Jewish jokes told by Jewish comedians to mixed audiences. One of the nationalities most famous for their humor is the Russians - Russians are always telling Russian jokes, which poke fun at their own failings and especially the failings of their leaders. Which leads me to the observation - isn't it curious that Americans never tell American jokes? "These two Americans were walking down the street " What this absence says about us as a nationality is not clear to me.

As you probably know, Sigmund Freud was very interested in humor. He described two types of jokes, the "innocent" and the "tendentious," with the tendentious joke being the kind that is a form of displaced aggression. You can figure which type interested Freud the most. This kind of humor can either be rebellious - the employees joking about their boss, for example - or repressive. People who like to talk about the liberating power of humor often overlook the wide variety of repressive examples, such as ethnic jokes. Anna pointed out to me the last time she was home that the emergence of the "dumb blonde" joke coincided with the rise of feminism in society.

Freud also observed the comforting quality of humor, though, that "coping" and "cohesive" quality I mentioned a minute ago. Describing this quality, he writes that one part of the mind - the superego, in his terms - says to another part, the fearful ego, "Look! here is the world, which seems so dangerous! It is nothing but a game for children-just worth making a jest about!"

Your typical April Fool's joke is always tendentious and repressive. An essential part of the April Fool's joke is the inability of the subject to respond aggressively - restrained either by politeness or powerlessness. The butt of the April Fool's joke is forced to laugh. That's a contradiction in terms, of course - being forced to laugh - but it illustrates the basic oppressiveness of the joke.

I have read a comparison of joketelling to the performance of a magic trick. There is the setup, which necessarily involves misdirection, followed by surprise, and pleasure at having been surprised. That's why "stop me if you've heard this" is a common introduction to a joke. If you've heard it, you can't be surprised at the outcome, and thus the entire transaction is pointless. Being misdirected momentarily - not guessing the punch line - is part of the experience of hearing a joke, and in so doing we put ourselves in a temporary situation of dependence on the teller. I'm sure you have known chronic joketellers in your time, those people who cannot get through a simple exchange without telling joke after joke, the "I've got a million of 'em" people. Next time you are stuck listening to such a person, you might think about the psychology involved in the need to be the one in charge all the time, the only one who knows the outcome of the story.

Thank goodness we Unitarians are able to laugh at ourselves. You've heard all the familiar Unitarian jokes. My favorite new one is, "Why are Unitarians like Count Dracula? We both have origins in Transylvania, and we both shy away from the cross." Unitarian jokes tend to be more of the cohesive type than the critical - we laugh at our own tendencies while not really probing them too deeply. Most Unitarian jokes express a certain pride in our oddness, even comfort in it, since not being like every other denomination is part of our identity. Like the one about the UU prayer: "Dear God, if there is a God, if you can, save my soul, if I have a soul." Luckily for us, we are the only denomination that can take off during the summer because God trusts us out of his sight for a while.

Compare Unitarian humor with Jewish humor, and you can see the difference. It is nothing short of amazing how much humor existed during the Holocaust. When you are the weakest of the weak, without resources or allies, humor provides a means of coping, as in this joke from the Holocaust: A Jewish father tells his children that under the new regime they are required to say grace at meals. "Today in Germany the proper form of grace is 'Thank God and Hitler.'" His son asks, "But suppose the Führer dies?"
"Then you just thank God."

Or the story that has Goebbels touring German schools and asking the students to call out patriotic slogans. "Heil Hitler," one child shouts.
"Very good," says Goebbels.
"Deutschland über alles," another calls out.
"Excellent. How about a stronger slogan?"
A third little boy raises his hand."Our people shall live forever," he says.
"Wonderful," exclaims Goebbels. "What is your name, young man?"
"Israel Goldberg."

In that joke, you can see all three functions of humor at work. It is satiric and critical, poking fun at the pretensions of the Nazi propagandist. It is cohesive, expressing a sense of identity. And it is coping, expressing a hope that goes beyond individual life, beyond the present day.

A conversation came up at my lunch table at work the other day involving the recent movie "Borat," and I had to admit that I didn't get Borat. Or at least I got it in a different way than everyone else. Supposedly, according to the reviews at least, it was intended as a scathing satire of American philistinism, racism, and what have you, but I read the humor differently. I found most parts of the movie to be quite the opposite - really something of a testimonial to the politeness and patience of Americans, who are willing to put up with all manner of egregious violations of social norms by a stranger in their midst, until finally his boorish behavior forces them to eject him. To me, "Borat" was a testimony to the essential goodness of most Americans. But perhaps I am deliberately misinterpreting the movie, or interpreting it in a way that is more benign than intended.

Reinterpretation of humor to suit one's own mental framework is nothing new, naturally. In the early years of World War II before the attack on Pearl Harbor, American social psychologists were put to work trying to analyze racist thinking, in hopes of helping Americans understand why helping the Allies was the right thing to do. They organized what came to be known as the "Mr. Biggott" studies, in which cartoonists created a character named Mr. Biggott, who was then put into a number of humorous situations designed to illustrate how absurd and foolish racism is. They showed these cartoons to a number of people who had expressed racist attitudes on questionnaires. To their surprise, the bigots enjoyed the "Mr. Biggott" cartoons a great deal! They got the joke - they just didn't get the intended joke. For example, one of the research subjects was shown a cartoon in which Mr. Biggott has slipped on a banana peel. He says to a nearby couple, "Don't just stand there - get me a white Protestant lawyer!" In another, he is seated at a desk speaking to a man who is obviously American Indian in ethnicity. The punch line is, "I'm sorry, Mr. Eaglefeather, but our company's policy is to employ 100 percent Americans only." When shown these cartoons, people with racist beliefs tended to find them quite funny. The only problem was, they found funny in ways that agreed with their pre-existing beliefs. They saw the joke as a rueful comment on how minority groups are always trying to take advantage of hard-working white people. We saw the same phenomenon during the 1970s when "All in the Family" was on television. A surprising number of people thought Archie Bunker was the spokesman for their treasured ideas, not the object of pointed satire.

Perhaps one of the dearest uses of humor to me is the existence of family humor - those jokes, stories, sayings, incidents, and moments that exist within a family and give it a personal history and richness that only families can possess. I would tell you a few of our family jokes, but they wouldn't mean a thing to you. Literally, you had to be there.

So I suppose the point here is to think about what you're laughing at, and why. Not all humor is liberating, although sometimes laughter may seem to be our only salvation in a world gone mad. And if you see me downstairs at brunch messing with the sugar bowls, you might want to take a little taste before you put it on.

Let me just mention one more thing. If those darn raccoons ever start infesting the Tower Room again, we should take them down the street to the Methodist church and have them baptized. That way they'll only show up at Christmas and Easter.

Oh, and by the way....did you hear about the Unitarian boy over in Canton who married one of the Amish girls? He ended up driving her buggy.

©2007 Steve Wiegenstein

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Wiegenstein, Steve. 2007. What's So Funny? I Don't Get It, /talks/20070401.shtml (accessed July 16, 2020).

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