Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

August 9, 2013

Delving into the mystery of humor

By JALETTA ALBRIGHT DESMOND
Bluefield Daily Telegraph

— My husband doesn’t think I’m funny. Every once in awhile I can get a chuckle or an actual belly laugh and I feel like a much younger, kinder and less surgically treated Joan Rivers.

Now, put me in a room with a small group of women and I can drop bon mots all over the place, whacking away at my own character flaws like a joke-filled piñata. I may even gingerly tease them with my sarcastic wit, getting knowing giggles and, yes, even those beloved belly laughs.

How can our clowning be clever to some and not others? Honestly, I don’t think I’m as funny with my husband. I just don’t juggle the jokes with him the way I do a crew of cackling women.

Maybe my humor is gender-specific. I can do female-friendly farce or girlish goofiness. But the male mind may not find me amusing.

Or maybe it’s not a gender issue. I have friends, dear friends whom I love and love me, that probably know me more as the listening ear and analytical mouth rather than the quip-spouting, giggle-inducing girlfriend. Still, there are those other friends who find me sarcastic, irreverent and worth a chuckle or two in the midst of the listening and analyzing.

Maybe it’s the mood. Maybe it’s the company. Maybe it’s the sense of one’s sense of humor.

“Oh, John Smith is hilarious!” a friend told me recently. She predicted a third person would find John Smith funny. That third person did. I realized the friend and the third person probably share the same sense of humor, something I hadn’t noticed. But then I remembered my friend always said that third person was funny. Maybe I should draw a diagram to explain that whole thing.

Was that funny?

Anyway, we have types of humor we find humorous. This probably isn’t a profound discovery or astute observation. I’m simply trying to figure out why my husband doesn’t typically think I’m funny and getting “That was funny!” from him feels like some kind of Oscar-level award.

Most people believe humor and intelligence are very closely related. Usually if you are very witty, you are very intelligent. So I’ve always respected very funny people — people who just pop off a comedic comment like it’s a cough. If I’m lucky, I think of one the next day but rarely in the next second.

Although funny people are usually smart, let’s be honest — smart people aren’t always funny. Nonetheless, they can analyze anything, so I wanted to know what they thought.

American writer E.B. White is quoted as saying, “Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

That’s already taking all the fun out of this.

Another “fun” quote about comedy is attributed to Sir Donald Wolfit, a British actor and director who allegedly offered this well-known comment on his deathbed, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”

In an article about a summer course called, “Wit and Humor,” Harvard University Gazette writer Ken Gewertz offered this observation: “How is it that laughter, a behavior so basic and essential to human life that babies laugh long before they learn to walk, should be so devilishly hard to evoke — so much so that even the best efforts of professional comedians and comedy writers often fall flat?” How true! The infantile mind quickly seeks and grasps humor while we adults struggle to find it or produce it.

The instructor of the course, Leo Damrosch, the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature, was quoted as saying, “Literary criticism has always been more comfortable with high-minded theories of tragedy than with trying to explain comedy. It’s tragedy whose existence is easy to explain and laughter that seems mysterious.” So comedy is actually a mystery — which explains why it is a mystery that I can’t always be funny with my husband.  Damrosch believes that humor has an expiration date, a short-shelf life. That is key. I think truly funny stuff stays funny for a long time. Consider the Marx Brothers, “I Love Lucy,” early Saturday Night Live skits, Monty Python and some Woody Allen. But not the Three Stooges. Well, my husband thinks the Stooges are funny and I emphatically disagree. That might be a clue to the mystery right there.

According to the article, Professor Damrosch also had the students read a selection of theoretical writings, including essays by Sigmund Freud and Henri Bergson. (Some light reading for a group of students expecting to read “The Simpsons” scripts.) Damrosch offered this insight, “One of the fundamental themes of the course is that humor is extremely various. There’s no unified field theory of humor.” (This guy is really good with a punch line.)

Even if we don’t share a unified field theory of humor, my husband and I do love to laugh together so we often seek humor in the light and dark places of life. Humor is healing and fun — when you don’t over analyze it.

Jaletta Albright Desmond is a columnist who writes about faith, family, and the fascinatingly mundane aspects of daily life. She lives in North Carolina with her family. Contact her at jdesmond@bdtonline.com.