There’s probably nothing more quixotic than trying to explain why humor is funny, and I can say without reading it that Vladimir Propp’s book On The Comic And Laughter may be one of the least funny books ever written, simply because it’s a serious philosophical study of humor, including studies from the works of Shakespeare, Moliere, and Gogol. Now I know you’re thinking that there’s nobody funnier than Russian authors, especially if you’re the sort of person who giggles while reading obituaries. Actually one of the funniest jokes I’ve ever heard is set in the former Soviet Union, and may have even originated there. It goes like this: Two guys are sitting in a bar. One of them says, “Eighteen” and the other guy starts laughing hysterically. Then the other guy says, “Fifty-four” and the first guy laughs and pounds his fist on the bar. The bartender notices this and says, “Okay guys, what’s so funny about the numbers?” One of the guys says, “Back in the Soviet days we couldn’t tell political jokes so we memorized them all and gave them numbers. That way we could tell each other political jokes without getting caught by the KGB.” The bartender laughs and thinks for a minute then says, “Hey guys…twenty-seven!” The two guys just look at him blankly, then one says, “You know, it’s not so much the joke, it’s the way you tell it.”
This joke is hilarious, but like most jokes you just can’t analyze it. Once you do it’s no longer funny, and if, like Vladimir Propp, you write an entire book analyzing jokes like that you probably won’t think anything’s funny ever again because you’ll be too busy analyzing the ontological implications of the rabbi, the priest, and the minister walking into a bar and the bartender saying, “Hey, is this a joke?”
The only author I know of who really made a serious effort to understand why humor is funny without ruining it is Dave Barry, in his essay Why Humor Is Funny, which you can find in the book Dave Barry’s Greatest Hits. Fortunately he doesn’t come to any firm conclusions, although he does offer some very sage advice, such as this:
Never attend a large dinner party with my former mother-in-law, because she will shout across the table at you: “Tell the one about the man who’s seeking the truth and he finally gets all the way to Tibet and the wise man tells him that a wet bird doesn’t fly at night,” and then she’ll insist that you tell it, and then she’ll tell you you told it wrong, and you might have to kill her with a fork.
By the way, in that same book Barry also has a piece called Public-Spirited You, which also deals with humor and in which he asks such thought-provoking questions as, “Does Queen Elizabeth ever hear any jokes? Who tells them to her?” Actually Queen Elizabeth is married to a pretty funny guy, but that’s another story. What I’d really like to know is this: in that piece Barry refers to a joke involving “marital infidelity and a closet”, with the punchline, “Ding, dammit, DONG.” Like every individual with a Y chromosome on the planet I can remember every joke I’ve ever heard and I’ve never heard this one. The only joke I know involving marital infidelity and a closet ends with a small boy in a confessional saying, “Boy, it’s dark in here” and the priest saying, “Not YOU again!” So if you know the joke Dave Barry was referring to please share it.