Contemplating different forms of humour – jokes, sarcasm, puns, absurdisms, and elaborate pranks – and why we bother with them, anyway.
Where are we going?
As our car pulls away from the snowbird encampment, one of the short people in the back seat indicates by her question that our communication skills have failed the test with the under-eight set, yet again. (It also gives some insight into their world. Imagine getting into a car without knowing where you’re being taken or why: have they learned nothing from gangster/spy movies?)
We’re going for an eight-hour hike, I reply in a completely matter-of-fact tone. Thus is the back seat chatter silenced for a minute or two, allowing me to hear the sound of mental gears grinding and then slipping, producing little forward motion. You’re kidding, right? asks the older one, clearly not at all sure she’s right. Absolutely, I reply, we’re going for a two-minute hike. The gears grind faster this time, with a more assured result. You’re kidding, right? This, more gleeful statement than tentative question.
Indeed. If it sounds like I must be kidding—if what I’m saying is just too ridiculous for words—then I am kidding, no matter how serious my tone. But compared to pratfalls, fake fart noises, and stories with punchlines (obvious or not), it’s a relatively subtle and idiosyncratic form of humour.
Some forms of humour seem wired in us, as part of the human heritage; some seem to be learned or at least reinforced through exposure. Very young babies notice and pay attention to surprises, to things being not as they expect: objects appearing or disappearing without any apparent cause, for example. It takes them a little longer to reliably find humour in the unexpected: to laugh, not cry, at the jump made by the jack-in-the-box, or at quacking noises made by a human stranger (not that I’ve ever made a baby cry by doing this).
Small kids think that all scatological references are jokes, reflecting their preoccupation with this function as well as the thrill of violating taboos. Most are five before they can get a knock-knock joke, and older than that before they can tell one properly, distinguishing form from content—knowing what’s funny about them, in fact.
Don’t cry little girl, it will be all right.
Preteens also appreciate jokes that depend on puns, and many people never grow out of this stage entirely.
Doctor, I can’t decide whether I’m a wigwam or a teepee.
Your problem is, you’re too tense.
Teenagers have the entire range of humour available to them, albeit not always at the upper ranges of sophistication: slapstick, jokes, sexual references (reflecting what will be a durable preoccupation with this function and its taboos), the wit of various kinds of word play, and the humour of the absurd.
Returning home from an errand, we see two empty shoes on the sidewalk in front of our house: the detritus, perhaps, of our neighbour’s garage sale. Sucked up by aliens, comes the laconic remark from the teen in the back seat.
Somewhere along the way, some people learn sarcasm as more than a way to put idiotic parents in their place or to try to mask their own insecurities.
T-shirt slogan: National Sarcasm Society (Like we need your support)
Some people learn to tell when someone is joking, but not telling a joke. Some don’t.
Sitting in the school hallway with grade three students as they practice reading aloud, I look up as a man I know walks by. Who was that strange man? I ask as he disappears into the classroom. That’s not a strange man, that’s Angie’s daddy, answers one munchkin helpfully.
The kid shouldn’t feel bad. I worked with a woman once who never did know when I was kidding. Nothing I said sounded funny to her, but she eventually learned my delivery style, and would laugh obligingly, if uncomprehendingly.
Like teasing, which relies for its humorous effect on being ‘a dangerous thing from a safe source’—the grown-up equivalent of tossing a baby into the air—dry humour relies for its humorous effect on successfully navigating the knife edge of interaction. The moment of uncertainty about intentions makes the communication dangerous, the established relationship makes it safe, and the combination makes it funny. Or so we hope.
Meeting chairperson: I’d like to propose a new protocol for these staff meetings: all comments should be positive.
Me: That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.
In that breathless space between utterance and laughter lies the humour and also the potential connection between the participants. Failed connection transforms perpetrator into apologist; victim into, well, victim. Successful connection creates co-conspirators, even of strangers, as momentary horror turns into tentative realization: You’re kidding, right? Right.
Clerk, apologetically: I’m sorry I’m taking so long—I’m in training.
Customer, inflection-free: This is completely unacceptable. I am outraged.
Many of the public pranks played on this day (today and back through the decades) rely on matter-of-fact, inflection-free delivery for full effect: provoking the momentary uncertainty that creates a space for the humour. Others use the technique to invite the listener into the absurdity of it all. Classics include the BBC’s 1957 news spot on the Swiss spaghetti harvest; Burger King’s 1998 ad for left-handed Whoppers; the BBC’s 2008 mockumentary on migrating penguins; and Google’s 2010 name change to Topeka.
You’re kidding, right? Absolutely. Glad you could join me for the ride.