Saturday, January 19, 2013

What Makes a Joke Funny?

I got the following funny story from a recent post on Frank Viola's blog, one I recommend (and that usually has much more serious content :-):

An old Italian-American man wanted to plant his annual tomato garden, but it was very difficult work, as the ground was hard. His only son, Vincent, who used to help him, was in prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament:

Dear Vinnie,
I’m pretty upset. It looks like I won’t be able to plant my tomato garden this year. I’m just getting too old to be digging up a garden plot. The ground is just too hard. I know if you were here you would dig it for me. Oh well. Maybe in the future.

A few days later he received a letter from his son.

Dear Pop,
Don’t dig up that garden. That’s where the bodies are buried.

At 4 am the next morning, FBI agents and local police arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. That same day the old man received another letter from his son.

Dear Pop,
You should be able to plant the tomatoes now. That’s the best I could do under the circumstances.

I thought this was pretty funny, but not to spoil the fun by over-analyzing the reasons why, I'm always intrigued by what makes us laugh. You'd think it would be because something is just purely delightful, but I've come to think it may be closer to the same triggers that make us cry.

Think about it. Jokes and other humorous tales are seldom funny in the sense that they are about highly pleasurable experiences. That is, we seldom laugh hearing stories where everything is wonderful from beginning to end. Rather it may be from the sense of comic relief we feel over someone else's dilemma, embarrassment or dumb mistake in fact being someone else's rather than ours own.

In most respects, the above story is a sad tale. The father is old and lives alone. He loves to grow tomatoes in his garden, but the ground is too hard for him to dig the soil. He has only one son, and that son is in prison for something bad he must have done, and for who knows how long. And there are supposedly some unknown dead bodies buried in the back yard, surely not a good thing. Then the police show up at a dreadfully early hour, disrupting the old man's sleep and his normally peaceful day. So far, everything sounds depressing.

Then there are the elements of suspense and surprise. "That's where the bodies are buried" introduces an unexpected twist to the story. We want to hear more. The police and FBI showing up add to the drama. Then there is more surprise in that they find nothing. But the clincher, the totally unexpected, out-of-the-box surprise is learning that this was all a clever scheme by son Vinnie to get the garden dug up for his father. Here we get to the sense of comic relief, with everything turning out surprisingly well due to someone upstaging and completely outsmarting those who normally have all the power and control. We get the delicious satisfaction of seeing uppity, self-important or seemingly more powerful people stripped of some of their stature (which, by the way, may be why there are so many lawyer, clergy and mother-in-law jokes). David brings down Goliath.

All of this introduces another darker element in many laughter-evoking jokes. Why do we laugh at seeing someone being hurt, frustrated or brought down a notch or two? In this case, the police and FBI are outsmarted, and by completely devious means. Vinnie lies about the bodies and tricks the powers that be into exhausting themselves for hours digging up some really hard ground. We all know this is a big mistake, but we get to laugh, at others' expense, at behaviors that would otherwise violate our values. 

Again, I don't want to spoil all the fun we can have with a good humored and well told tale. At one level, it's just a joke, and most of us take life far too seriously. But it may not hurt to understand some of the reasons we laugh at what we do. Maybe comedy is just one of the healthier alternatives we have to crying about all the tragedies and absurdities in life.

I welcome your reflections.
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