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Why Humor Is Funny

As a professional humorist, I often get letters from readers who are interested in the basic nature of humor. “What kind of a sick, perverted, disgusting person are you, “ these letters typically ask, “that you make jokes about setting fire to a goat?”

And that, of course, is the wonderful thing about humor. What may seem depressing or even tragic to one person may seem like an absolute scream to another person, especially if he has had between four and seven beers. But most people agree on what is funny, and most people like to be around a person with a great sense of humor, provided he also has reasonable hygiene habits. This is why people so often ask me: “Dave, I’d like to be popular, too. How can I get a sense of humor like yours, only with less of a dependence on jokes that are primarily excuses to use the word ‘booger’?”

This is not an easy question. Ever since prehistoric times, wise men have tried to understand what exactly makes people laugh. That’s why they were called wise men. All the other prehistoric people were out puncturing each other with spears, and the wise men were back in the cave saying:

“How about: Here’s my wife, please take her right now. No. How about: Would you like to take something? My wife is available. No. How about ...”

Mankind didn’t develop a logical system of humor until thousands of years later when Aristotle discovered, while shaving, the famous Humor Syllogism, which states, “If A is equal to B, and B is equal to C, then it would not be particularly amusing if the three of them went around poking each other in the eyes and going ‘Nyuk nyuk nyuk.’ At least I don’t think it would be.”

By the Elizabethan era, humor had become extremely popular. The works of Shakespeare, for example, are filled with scenes that English teachers always claim are real thighslappers, although when you actually decode them, it turns out they mostly depend on the use of the Elizabethan word for “booger.” In America today, of course, our humor is much more sophisticated, ranging all the way from television shows featuring outtakes of situation comedies where the actors can’t get the words right to television shows featuring outtakes of commercials where the actors can’t get the words right. Also we have Woody Allen, whose humor has become so sophisticated that nobody gets it anymore except Mia Farrow. All those who think Mia Farrow should go back to making movies where the devil gets her pregnant and Woody Allen should go back to dressing up as a human sperm, please raise your hands. Thank you.

If you want to develop a sense of humor of your own, you need to learn some jokes. Notice I do not say “puns.” Puns are little “plays on words” that a certain breed of person loves to spring on you and then look at you in a certain self-satisfied way to indicate that he thinks that you must think that he is by far the cleverest person on Earth now that Benjamin Franklin is dead, when in fact what you are thinking is that if this person ever ends up in a lifeboat, the other passengers will hurl him overboard by the end of the first day even if they have plenty of food and water.

So what you want is real jokes. The best source for these is the authoritative Encyclopedia Britannica article entitled “Humor and Wit,” which is in volume 99 (Humidity-Ivory Coast). This is where Carson gets all his material. It’s a regular treasure trove of fun. Here Is a real corker from right at the beginning:

“A masochist is a person who likes a cold shower in the morning, so he takes a hot one.”

Whoooeee! That is one authoritative joke! Tell that one at a dull party, and just watch as the other guests suddenly come to life and remember important dental appointments!

But it is not enough merely to know a lot of great jokes. You also have to be able to tell them properly. Here are some tips:

1. When you tell vicious racist jokes, you should first announce that you were a liberal back when it was legal to be one.

2. Men have a certain body part that women do not have, and men always think jokes about it are a stone riot, but if you tell such a joke to a woman, she will look at you as though you are a Baggie filled with mouse remains. I don’t know why this is, but it never fails. So you want to avoid this particular type of joke in coeducational social settings such as Windsor Castle.

3. If, after you tell a joke, somebody attempts to tell you one back, you should keep assuring him that you haven’t heard it, and then, when he gets to the punchline, no matter how funny it is, you should react as though he just told you the relative humidity and say: “Yeah, I heard that.”

4. 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.


Readers are sometimes critical of me because just about everything I write about is an irresponsible lie. But now I’m going to write a column in which everything is true. See how you like it.

Our first true item comes from a news release from the j I Case company. For the benefit of those of you who have real jobs and are not involved in the news business, I should first explain that a news release is an article that has been typed up by a public-relations professional hired by a client who wants to get certain information published, which is then mailed out to several thousand newspapers, almost all of which throw it away without reading it. If you ever commit a really horrible crime and you want to keep it out of the papers, you should have a public-relations professional issue a news release about it.

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