Comedy Tonight: "Why We Laugh -- or Do We?": Another "Benchley Tonight" resurrection
Benchley attempts to introduce a man "who needs no introduction," in The Sky's the Limit.
"Incidentally, by the time you have the 'humor' analyzed, it will be found that the necessity for laughing has been relieved."
-- Robert Benchley, in "Why We Laugh -- or Do We?"
Somehow the idea has gotten around that we're living in a Golden Age of Comedy -- sometimes known, I gather, as the Age of Apatow, not just in movies but on TV (cf. the abominable Grrlz). As far as I can tell, the overriding principle of comedy in this golden age is that it's never funny. It never seems to obligate, or even prompt, the audience to laugh, or even smile just a little. Take a shower, perhaps, but laugh, not so much.
Okay, you got me, I watched three or four episodes of Vice Principals before shaking loose. But I really don't want to write about that experience, at least not just now. It's bound to lead to the hurling around of words like "abomination," and that's no more fun for me than it would be for you. Maybe it would be therapeutic to note that actual comedy, of the time-honored funny sort, hasn't entirely disappeared. In fact, as I've rewatched selected episodes of CBS's Life in Pieces, I've been appreciating them more fully because funny as a lot of it always seemed, a lot of it becomes that much funnier the better you know the characters. (Imagine, a comedy that's character-driven! In a DVD commentary for The Mary Tyler Moore Show, co-creator Allan Burns explained that in the creation and running of the show, this was a major sticking point with the network people, who couldn't grasp the idea of a show that instead of jokes relied on comedy that developed out of the characters and the situations they were put in.)
Not long ago I found myself dialoguing after a fashion with quite a well-known writer who was advancing the proposition that "farts are funny." Not, mind you, as I would be happy to agree, that under certain circumstances it's possible that a fart could be funny. No, the announced principle was, simply: Farts are funny. In the same online, er, discussion, another theorist of comedy announced that it's about shock, which would explain once and for all why we so often use the word "shocking" as a synonym for "funny."
And that leads me straight to the Robert Benchley piece I'm resurrecting today, 'Why We Laugh -- or Do We?" A couple of months ago I did another resurrection from my long-running "Comedy Tonight" series, which began, reflecting my personal comedic pantheon, as "Thurber Tonight," and came to include, listed alphabetically, Woody Allen, Bob and Ray, Will Cuppy, Wolcott Gibbs, Ring Lardner, S. J. Perelman, Jean Shepherd, and E. B. White and that too was a Benchley piece, the sublime "How to Get Things Done" ("Having trouble getting things done? Learn from the master, the great Robert Benchley") I would note, by the way, that among these worthies, the laff-riot subject of farting rarely came up, the possible exception being Jean Shepherd, who however would certainly have insisted on the, um, situationality of the laugh, since Jean's comic genius was compulsively situational -- anyone who listened to any of his radio programs knows how fanatically -- and hilariously -- he worked to set up the situations he proceeded to uncork.
It's probably just a coincidence that it's Benchley who's once again calling out to me amid the raging of the non-comedy wars, but there we have it. It's impossible to dabble in theories of comedy without acknowledging that Benchley's been there, done that. And so, without further preamble, I re-offer this "Benchley Tonight" post from Jan. 23, 2011.
Again, the master listing for "THURBER TONIGHT (now including BENCHLEY TONIGHT)" can be found here.
"Why We Laugh -- or Do We?" (1937) is another Benchley piece I've quoted from and/or tried to paraphrase about a million times, especially the "five cardinal rules" we have to "check up on" before "giving in" to a joke, like "(3) It must be about something. You can't just say, 'Here's a good joke' and let it go at that. (You can, but don't wait for the laugh.)." Note: Max Eastman's 1936 book Enjoyment of Laughter was the proximate "inspiration" for this piece. -- Ken
Why We Laugh—or Do We?
(Let's Get This Thing Settled, Mr. Eastman)
IN ORDER TO LAUGH at something, it is necessary (1) to know what you are laughing at, (2) to know why you are laughing, (3) to ask some people why they think you are laughing, (4) to jot down a few notes, (5) to laugh. Even then, the thing may not be cleared up for days.
All laughter is merely a compensatory reflex to take the place of sneezing. What we really want to do is sneeze, but as that is not always possible, we laugh instead. Sometimes we underestimate our powers and laugh and sneeze at the same time. This raises hell all around.
The old phrase "That is nothing to sneeze at" proves my point. What is obviously meant is "That is nothing to laugh at." The wonder is that nobody ever thought of this explanation of laughter before, with the evidence staring him in the face like that.*
*Schwanzleben, in his work Humor After Death, hits on this point indirectly when he says, "All laughter is a muscular rigidity spasmodically relieved by involuntary twitching. It can be induced by the application of electricity as well as by a so-called 'joke.'"
We sneeze because we are thwarted, discouraged, or devil-may-care. Failing a sneeze, we laugh, faute de mieux. Analyze any funny story or comic situation at which we "laugh" and it will be seen that this theory is correct. Incidentally, by the time you have the "humor" analyzed, it will be found that the necessity for laughing has been relieved.
Let us take the well-known joke about the man who put the horse in the bathroom.* Here we have a perfect example of the thought-sneeze process, or, if you will, the sneeze-thought process. The man, obviously an introvert, was motivated by a will-to-dominate-the-bathroom, combined with a desire to be superior to the other boarders. The humor of the situation may seem to us to lie in the tag line "I want to be able to say, 'Yes, I know,'" but we laugh at the joke subconsciously long before this line comes in. In fact, what we are really laughing (or sneezing) at is the idea of someone's telling us a joke that we have heard before.
*A man who lived in a boarding house brought a horse home with him one night, led it upstairs, and shut it in the bathroom. The landlady, aroused by the commotion, protested, pointed to the broken balustrade, the torn stair carpet, and the obvious maladjustment of the whole thing, and asked the man, confidentially, just why he had seen fit to shut a horse in the common bathroom. To which the man replied, 'In the morning, the boarders, one by one, will go into the bathroom, and will come rushing out, exclaiming, 'There's a horse in the bathroom!' I want to be able to say, 'Yes, I know.'"
Let us suppose that the story was reversed, and that a horse had put a man into the bathroom. Then our laughter would have been induced by the idea of a landlady's asking a horse a question and the horse's answering -- an entirely different form of joke.
The man would then have been left in the bathroom with nothing to do with the story. Likewise, if the man had put the landlady into the bathroom, the horse would obviously have been hors de combat (still another form of joke, playing on the similarity in sound between the word "horse" and the French word "hors" meaning "out of." Give up?).
Any joke, besides making us want to sneeze, must have five cardinal points, and we must check up on these first before giving in:
(1) The joke must be in a language we can understand.
(2) It must be spoken loudly enough for us to hear it, or printed clearly enough for us to read it.
(3) It must be about something. You can't just say, "Here's a good joke" and let it go at that. (You can, but don't wait for the laugh.)
(4) It must deal with either frustration or accomplishment, inferiority or superiority, sense or nonsense, pleasantness or unpleasantness, or, at any rate, with some emotion that can be analyzed, otherwise how do we know when to laugh?
(5) It must begin with the letter "W."*
*Gunfy, in his Laughter Considered as a Joint Disease, holds that the letter "W" is not essential to the beginning of a joke, so long as it comes in somewhere before the joke is over. However, tests made on five hundred subjects in the Harvard School of Applied Laughter, using the Mergenthaler Laugh Detector, have shown that, unless a joke begins with the letter "W," the laughter is forced, almost unpleasant at times.
Now, let us see just how our joke about the horse in the bathroom fulfills these specifications. Using the Gestalt, or Rotary-Frictional, method of taking the skin off a joke, we can best illustrate by making a diagram of it. We have seen that every joke must be in a language that we can understand and spoken (or written) so clearly that we can hear it (or see it). Otherwise we have this:
Joke which we cannot hear, see, or understand the words of
You will see in Figure 2 that we go upstairs with the man and the horse as far as the bathroom. Here we become conscious that it is not a true story, something we may have suspected all along but didn't want to say anything about. This sudden revelation of absurdity (from the Latin ab and surdus, meaning "out of deafness") is represented in the diagram by an old-fashioned whirl.
The horse-in-bathroom story under ideal conditions
Following the shock of realization that the story is not real, we progress in the diagram to the point where the landlady protests. Here we come to an actual fact, or factual act. Any landlady in her right mind would protest against a horse's being shut in her bathroom. So we have, in the diagram, a return to normal ratiocination, or Crowther's Disease, represented by the wavy line. (Whoo-hoo!)
From then on, it is anybody's joke. The whole thing becomes just ludicrous. This we can show in the diagram by the egg-and-dart design, making it clear that something has definitely gone askew. Personally, I think that what the man meant to say was "That's no horse -- that's my wife," but that he was inhibited. (Some of these jokes even I can't seem to get through my head.)*
* A. E. Bassinette, in his pamphlet What Is Humor—A Joke?, claims to have discovered a small tropical fly which causes laughter. This fly, according to this authority, was carried from Central America back to Spain by Columbus's men, and spread from there to the rest of Europe, returning to America, on a visit, in 1667, on a man named George Altschuh.
TOMORROW -- more BENCHLEY TONIGHT: "How I Create"
[Note: You'll find "How I Create" here. -- Ed.]
THURBER TONIGHT (now including BENCHLEY TONIGHT): Check out the series to date