Why is that funny?

A man walks down the street…

falls into a manhole…

and dies!

Why is that not funny? It’s set up like a joke. It has an all too familiar opening, an unexpected happenstance, which brings us to a crescendo, and then the punch line. But the punch line hits too hard.

Even though we know very little about this character we just met and were picturing in our heads, his death gives us a sinking feeling.

So, what makes a good joke?

“If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it’s not funny,” writes a blogger on Yahoo Answers.

That is a good answer, but it can be fleshed out some more. Jokes seem to depend upon three ingredients: a familiar premise, a surprise or unexpected shift in the plot and an uplifting release at the end.

Philosophers Immanuel Kant and Arthur Schopenhauer thought surprise was the chief ingredient in a joke, that laughter was a reaction to  “incongruity.” Freud thought laughter that followed jokes was the result of fear of repressed feelings.

But I think jokes need to be good-natured. Given some thought, even jokes that take shots at another person’s race, background or gender have positive aspects to them. First of all, usually the purveyor is telling the joke to someone he considers to be of his kind, unlike the poor saps that are trying to “screw in a light bulb.” So there is a perceived sense of community.

Second, these crude jokes shine a light on prejudices that usually stay tucked away giving those involved a chance to work through their feelings. However, I am not recommending that we walk around spouting slurs.

Let’s get back to more obviously positive examples. Not everything has to be deep.

When you don’t want to think, there is always the one-liner: A man walks into a bar… Ouch.

And what is even quicker than a one-liner? A pun! “Have an apple,” the serpent said fruitfully  (badpuns.com).

At the opposite end of the spectrum from the pun is the shaggy dog story. Shaggy dog stories aren’t always jokes, and even the ones that are meant to be funny pull at the very fabric of what a joke is. Their long and winding narratives can be relentless in direct opposition to the economy of a joke. Sometimes they fizzle out long before the storyteller realizes he’s forgotten his punch line.

But what makes jocularity work are the insights that make us groan or guffaw if not laugh out loud. And these insights, like the recognition of “I’ve been there!,” or even, “Wow! Who would have thought…?,” that give us pleasure.

About genemyers

Gene Myers is a New Jersey poet, music journalist and columnist who learned to walk twice. His weekly column is called The Joy of Life. He was awarded first place in Arts and Entertainment Writing by The New Jersey Press Association.
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