July 23, 2010

What's So Funny?

       Everybody likes a good joke; everybody lists “sense of humor” as one of their most-valued traits.  Some people will admit that they aren’t any good at telling jokes, but still we all think we have a great sense of humor.  And yet we generally think that plenty of other people don’t.  How often do you hear someone complain, “He has no sense of humor,” or condemn someone else’s  joke with “That isn’t funny.”  I read an article about humor once – I thought it was in Smithsonian magazine, where I learn all kinds of nifty random stuff, but unfortunately I couldn’t find it in their index.  At any rate, one thing that really struck me in this article was the author’s point that it’s meaningless to say someone else’s joke “isn’t funny.”  After all, it clearly is funny to them, or they wouldn’t have told it.  However inappropriate or racist or sexist the joke is, however offensive or hurtful it is to some hearers, it is undeniably equally true that to other hearers the joke is, in fact, funny.  So, why does this matter?  Well, I’m not advocating that people tell offensive jokes, but I am reminded of what should be obvious yet seems to be so often forgotten: that humor is not an absolute.  Humor is a matter of personal taste.
        Just like art, just like literature, not everyone likes the same thing.  There may be some objective measures of quality, but ultimately it’s all a matter of personal preference.  Some people honestly and genuinely love the work of Thomas Kinkade, and some people honestly and genuinely love the work of Cy Twombley.  There may even be some people who love them both (the mind fairly boggles!)  Certainly I can stand up as a representative of the set of people who find the work of both to be empty, ugly, and insincere.  Yet, hard as it is for me to admit or for others to hear, not one of those points of view is intrinsically wrong.  Really.  (But please just don’t make me to listen to anyone defend Thomas Kinkade.  Ack.)
       But back to humor.  The point here is that not everyone finds the same stuff funny.  How well I remember the dark October morning when my 7-year-old son P woke me up early to tell me the splendid new joke he’d invented, which he simply could not wait any longer to share.
Grandma Hasenfuss snares a
charging rhino with Auntie
Jane's Technofloss (TM).
         Knock knock.  (Who's there?)
         Who.  (Who who?)
         Who who will make the Mackinstosh stew?
See what I mean about different people finding different things amusing?

        Since I’m not trying to be a professional comedienne, I have the luxury of shrugging and saying I don’t have to cater to anyone’s sense of humor but my own.  I won’t claim that a piece of my art is humorous, then if others see the same amusing quirks that I do, that’s great.  If they don’t, nothing lost.  Writing can be a little more dangerous because it’s generally pretty obvious when a writer is trying to be funny.  My book The Bad Advice of Grandma Hasenfuss is supposed to be funny, but more specifically, it’s supposed to be funny to 8-12 year olds.  All I can really be sure of for myself is whether or not it’s funny to me.  (It is.)  Anything else I can only infer from feedback I get from readers.

Kindness to animals is always a virtue,
even if the tiger needn't have hollered quite so loudly
over such a very small injury.
       Some people are under the impression that fantasy is all high-faluting Nobleness and Dire Battles with Evil, but there is a fine long tradition of funny fantasy, and juvenile fantasy is probably even richer in humor than the adult variety.  Do you want pure absurdity and parody as in Gail Carson Levine’s Princess Tales?  Or do you like your absurdity and parody to set the stage for more-or-less serious adventures, as in Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles and many of Eva Ibbotson’s books, including Dial-A-Ghost?  Do you like wry narration and occasional funny episodes to lighten the serious epic, as in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series?  How do you feel about sustained light silliness and hilarious (at least to readers of a certain tender age) gross factor, as in many of the recent crop of early chapter books such as the Franny K. Stein books by Jim Benton and the Hot Dog and Bob books by L. Bob Rovetch?  (Those are really more sci-fi than fantasy, if you want to draw your genres finer.)  Or is general madcappery more to your taste, as in The Mad Misadventures of Emmaline and Rubberbones by Howard Whitehouse?  Whatever your taste in humor, juvenile fantasy can serve it up like magic.  Just remember that, whatever your taste in humor, it is just that: your taste.
       This brings us to the funniest joke in the world.  Actually, to be accurate, this is the joke that is most universally found to be at least somewhat funny, although not necessarily the funniest joke to anyone.  It was research conducted by Professor Richard Wiseman in 2001-2002 that found “the world’s funniest joke,” so you may well have heard this one before.  (You can see some background info on the project here, as well as linking to Wiseman’s web site with his more recent research.)  If you feel that this one’s got whiskers and you want to up the funny factor a notch, just imagine that one of the men in the joke is wearing a chicken suit – or, according to Wiseman, a duck suit, because ducks are the scientifically proven funniest animals of all.  Either way:
        Two hunters are out in the woods when one of them collapses. He doesn't seem to be breathing and his eyes are glazed.  The other guy whips out his phone and calls the emergency services.  He gasps, "My friend is dead! What can I do?"  The operator says, "Calm down. I can help. First, let's make sure he's dead."  There is a silence, then a shot is heard.  Back on the phone, the guy says, "OK, now what?"
       No, it isn’t the very funniest joke I’ve ever heard, either, but at least it’s scientifically guaranteed to get a smile from just about any audience (with the possible exception of buddies of Dick Cheney).  As for my humor, in both art and writing, well, that’s just a matter of personal preference.

        [Pictures: Catch Me!, rubber block print by AEGN, 2007 (sold out);
Grandma Hasenfuss snares a rhino, photoshopped pen on paper by AEGN, 2009;
Eeenie Meenie Miny Moe, rubber block print by AEGN, 2004;
Cat Attack, rubber block print by AEGN, 1999.]


Pax said...

"The Bad Advice of Grandma Hasenfuss" is my absolute favorite "young adult" book. If I am feeling grumpy I open it at random and start reading. Pretty soon I'm smiling, then chuckling, and finally laughing out loud.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Awww, I'm so glad! Thanks! =)