Entertaining Humor--- What’s Funny?
Donald M. Huffman
The joy of laughing at a funny story is universal, probably as old as language itself. But, what is it that makes a story or a joke funny?
As one who has enjoyed humor since I first recognized it, I’ve made an attempt to explain
and discuss humor with students in such diverse cultures as Latin America and China. I’ve done
some serious thinking about funny stories. It has been a labor of love!
Why is it that several students in a class will fall out of their chairs laughing after I tell a joke while the rest of the students look as if I’ve just reed the weather report? Obviously some people
are more sensitive to humor than others. And, we recognized that some people tell jokes very well while others struggle to say something funny. We’ve all heard people say, “I like jokes, but I can’t
tell one well, and I can never remember them.” Some people have a better sense of humor than
others just as some people have more musical talent, mathematical talent, etc. than others. A truly funny person has a joke for every occasion, and when one is told, that triggers an entire string of jokes from that person’s memory bank. A humorless person is not likely to be the most popular person in a group. It is reasonable to say that the truly humorous individual is not only well liked, but is often the focus of attention in any gathering.
Even some animals have a sense of humor. My wife’s mother often visited us for extended
stays. She normally didn’t like dogs, but she fell in love with Blitzen---a female Lab we had, and the relationship was mutual. Even when young, Blitzen would tease Grandma by very selectively carrying one of her bedroom slippers into the living room where Grandma sat in her favorite, comfortable chair. Blitzen pranced just beyond the reach of Grandma until Grandma was tempted to leave her chair to get the slipper from Blitzen. When Grandma left her chair, Blitzen would quickly jump into the chair, flashing her Lab smile from sparking brown eyes which clearly said, “Aha, I fooled you again.”
Typical jokes or humorous stories have a three-part anatomy that is easily recognized. First is the SETUP (or setting), next is the BODY (or story line), and these are followed by the PUNCH LINE (an unexpected or surprise ending) which will make the joke funny if it contains some humor. Usually all three parts are present, and each must be clearly presented. It helps if the story/joke teller uses gestures and language which are well known to the audience.
Humor, as a form of entertainment, can be analyzed in order to discover what makes a funny story or joke seem funny. Here, for example, are some of the most common types of humor. They range from the most obvious humor to the more subtle types.
“SLAP-STICK” is the most obvious humor. Its language is simple, direct, and often makes fun of another person or group. Slap-stick was and is the technique of the stand-up comedian and the clown. It appeals to all ages and all cultures. Nearly every English-speaking comedian in this century has used the following joke in one form or another. One man asked another, “Who was
that lady I saw you with last night?” The other replies, “That was no lady, that was my wife.” The
humor lies in the fact that the second man is saying that his wife is not a lady. In other words, she is not a refined woman. The joke is no less funny because it is so often used, the audience knows in advance what will be said, because it is classic humor, and any audience values it even more because its familiarity.
Chinese “cross-take” is a special type of slap-stick in which two Chinese comedians
humorously discuss topics such as bureaucrats, family problems, or other personal topics.
Cross-talk can be heard anywhere from small village stages to the largest Beijing theatres, and to radio and television. It is clearly a traditional form of humor well understood by Chinese people.
A PLAY ON WORDS is not so obvious as slap-stick, but it is funny because of misused or misunderstood language. My favorite example is the story of three elderly gentlemen traveling by train in England. As the train slowed for a stop the first man asked, “Is this Wembley?” “No,” said
the second, “it’s Thursday.” “So am I,” said the third man. “Let’s stop for a beer.” We know that
older people often do not hear things clearly, so the misunderstanding of both Wednesday (for Wembley) and thirsty (for Thursday) makes a nice setup for the punch line delivered by the third man.
The famous Chinese cartoonist and humorist Ding Cong is a master if word play. In one of his funny cartoons, a teacher says, “How come you completely copied somebody else’s
homework?” The young student replies, “I didn’t completely copy it. My name on the page is
different.” In another classic Ding Cong cartoon, an irritated father asks, “Tell me, what’s one plus
two?” The son says, “I don’t know.” The impatient father then says, “for example, you, your
mother, and I altogether are how many, you idiot?” The son proudly answers, “Three idiots.”
Whether these stories are cartoons or jokes, told by a slap-stick comedian or a cross-talking team, they appeal to people everywhere as funny stories because they have a note of reality to them, and the unexpected punch line is quite funny.
PUNS are even more subtle forms of word play. They use the technique of similar sounding words or alternative meanings of the same word. Puns are thought by some critics to be the lowest form of humor, but I disagree with this. Puns require more subtle and sophisticated language skills than most humor forms, but even the very young can use them in their simpler forms. For example, the “riddle” or trick question often uses a pun in the setup, the story line, or, more often, the punch line. Puns are the first humor I learned, and about 5 years of age I remember hearing the following riddle. One person asks, “What is black and white and red all over?” The other person usually
cannot answer the riddle, so says, “I give up. What is the answer?” The riddler replies, “A
newspaper.” This is the obvious answer if one knows that “red” is pronounced the same as “read”
in English, but the meaning are clearly different.
DOUBLE ENTENDRES (French for double meanings) are special variations of puns in which words or phrases have double meanings. Frequently the two meanings are very different, and one is quite proper while the second is often, but not always, vulgar. I like the somewhat mild story of a school teacher and a principal of a high school who are concerned because some boys and girls have been seen kissing on the school playground. The teacher says to the students, “The
principal and I have decided to stop kissing on the school playground.” Hearing some laughter,
she senses her message was not altogether clear, so she adds, “What I mean to say is that there will
be no more kissing going on under our noses.” The clarification, of course, does nothing to correct
the first statement and the double meaning of the joke becomes even more laughable.
Some professional humorists think too much of today’s humor is not very intelligent or
sophisticated. They dislike the suggestive or vulgar language used too frequently, and they feel that most humorists are not very creative. It is true that some of today’s humor is rather shocking,
but I don’t think humor is to be blamed for that. Humor is alive and well, and it will persist simply because there are funny things happening every day. Some humorous people see and hear these funny things happening every day. Some humorous people see and hear these funny things and are able to make them into funny, entertaining jokes and stories.