by Philip Yaffe |
Note: This article is excerpted from the author’s new book “One-line Wonders: Humor in the Fast Lane.”
Music is said to be the universal language. The same could be said of humor. Just as people the world over like to listen to and play music, so they like to listen to and tell funny stories. As with music, people have different tastes; some like certain kinds of humor and not others. However, whatever their tastes almost everyone seems to appreciate one-liners . . . but are reluctant to pass them on.
“One-liners” are pithy humorous observations told a single sentence or perhaps two at the most. At their best, they are a distillation of everything humor is all about, wrapped up in an extremely small package.
But if one-liners are such a highly prized form of humor to listen to, why are we disinclined to tell them to others? I believe this is because a single one-liner is like an orphan. It is only when they come together fast and furious that one-liners reach the apogee of comedic perfection.
Perhaps the best exemplar of this truism is Leslie Townes “Bob” Hope. Bob Hope was world-renowned for his monologues featuring a rapid series of one-line jokes. However, taken singly and told by someone else, they would often fall flat.
This was not because Hope was a comedic genius, i.e. only Hope could properly tell Hope’s jokes. It was more the fact that stringing together so many one-liners so rapidly over a 5 – 10 minute monologue created an irresistible comedic atmosphere. Almost before you finished laughing at one joke, you were being set up to laugh at the next.
Many other comedians have made their reputations doing the same thing, e.g. Milton Berle, Rodney Dangerfield, Rita Rudner. And by the same means. Rattling off funny observations so rapidly creates expectation of laughter. You know you are going to laugh, so you are primed to do so.
By contrast, telling a single one-liner, no matter how inherently funny it may be, doesn’t benefit from this propitious comedic environment. A single one-liner must stand or fall totally on its own, which is why so often it does fall. Thus, while most people admire the one-liner as the acme of humor, they themselves prefer to tell longer jokes because a longer joke helps create the comedic atmosphere and expectation for laughter that a single one-liner cannot.
Another reason one-liners told singly often fail is because being so condensed, they assume considerable knowledge on the part of the listener. With a longer joke, you can set the scene to be certain that the listener will understand the context of the joke. However, with a one-liner, either he immediately understands — or he doesn’t.
In short, whether or not a one-liner succeeds or fails depends as much, and perhaps more, on the listener than on the teller.
A perfect example of this is my all-time favorite one-liner told by Bob Hope in October 1957. This was almost immediately after the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite. In his monologue, Hope reeled off several one-liners about the chagrin caused to the United States by its Cold War adversary beating it into space. Suddenly he became very serious, looked straight into the TV camera and said, “Even though the Russians put up the first Earth satellite, as Americans we still have one thing to be very proud about. John Foster Dulles is two laps ahead of it.”
I laughed so hard I nearly fell off of my chair. However, the people who were watching with me stared blankly at the TV screen with no reaction at all. At the time there was considerably controversy about whether John Foster Dulles, then Secretary of State, was traveling too much outside the U.S. rather than conducting a much-needed restructuring of the State Department at home.
I knew this, but apparently my companions didn’t, so they were momentarily flummoxed. But it didn’t really matter because Hope immediately moved on to something else. So while they may have missed this specific one-liner, they were immediately regaled with many more.
The Essence of Humor
The one-liner is a particularly interesting form of humor. But what do we really know about humor?
The short answer is, not very much. We know that some people seem to be inherently humorous but we don’t know why. Even they often don’t know why. “I just do things and say things that make people laugh.” Yet others can do essentially the same things and say essentially the same things, and no one laughs, or even smiles.
Thinkers throughout the centuries have been trying to define humor and describe its mechanisms, but without much agreement. There are a number of theories about humor, which at certain points coincide and at other points are widely separate.
First, a basic definition: Humor is the tendency of particular cognitive experiences to provoke laughter and provide amusement. The term derives from the humoral medicine of the ancient Greeks, who believed that the balance of humors (Latin for “bodily fluids”) in the human body control health and emotion.
We can already see that this definition suggests two aspects of humor. 1. It can provoke laughter (this we already knew). 2. Second, it can provide amusement.
These two characteristics are closely related, but are not reversible. When we laugh, almost by definition we are amused. However we are often amused without laughing, or even smiling. For example, someone tells you a joke and you laugh out loud; if you don’t laugh, then the joke was not really humorous. By contrast, you read a story that makes you laugh out loud, or makes you smile, or just gives you a feeling of pleasure without any external manifestations. Under all three conditions, the story is humorous.
It is important to make the distinction between laughter and amusement in trying to understand humor because otherwise we will miss some important clues as to what humor really is.
Let’s return to the first example: You hear a joke and you laugh out loud. But instead of hearing the joke, you read it. It is still the same joke, but it is now more likely that you will just smile, or show no outward manifestations of amusement at all.
What makes the difference? Clearly, it has something to do with how the joke is told, i.e. the tone of voice, the inflection of the voice, the personality of the person telling the joke, the body language of the person telling the joke, etc. Two people can tell the same joke. One will provoke hearty laughter, the other little or no reaction at all.
Note that nothing has been said about the listener’s environment. If the listener is alone, he will probably laugh less than if he is with two or three others. Why? Because in some societies, laughing by oneself is somewhat taboo while laughing together with others is a social occasion. Instead of two or three people, suppose the gathering of listeners is big, such at a live performance of a professional comedian. Chances are they will laugh even louder for pretty much the same reason. It is socially acceptable to do so — and in a big group maybe even socially required.
Learning about something is always aided by listening to the comments of people who practice it. Below are some pithy quotations about humor from a plethora of people who are generally credited with possessing a good sense of humor and having put it to good use. You may not recognize all of them. If you want to know more about any of the personalities cited, you can easily find them on the Internet.
“The secret to humor is surprise.” — Aristotle
“The gods too are fond of a joke.” — Aristotle
“Among those whom I like, I can find no common denominator. But among those I love, I can: all of them make me laugh.” — W. H. Auden “Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” — Francis Bacon “A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs, jolted by every pebble in the road.” — Henry Ward Beecher
“There seems to be no lengths to which humorless people will not go to analyze humor. It seems to worry them.” — Robert Benchley
“When humor goes, there goes civilization.” — Erma Bombeck “Humor is something that thrives between man's aspirations and his limitations.” — Victor Borge
“Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” — Victor Borge “Humor is just another defense against the universe.” — Mel Brooks
“The most wasted day of all is that in which we have not laughed.” — Sebastian Roch Nicolas Chamfort
“In the end, everything is a gag.” — Charlie Chaplin
“You cannot deal with the most serious things in the world unless you understand the amusing.” — Winston Churchill
“A joke is a very serious thing.” — Winston Churchill
“The kind of humor I like is the thing that makes me laugh for 5 seconds and think for 10 minutes.” — William Davis
“Humor is by far the most significant activity of the human brain.” — Edward de Bono
“Laughter is, after speech, the chief thing that holds society together.” — Max Eastman “Humor is the instinct for taking pain playfully.” — Max Eastman
“Humor prevents one from becoming a tragic figure even though he/she is involved in tragic events.” — E.T. Eberhart
“A sense of humor is the ability to understand a joke, and that the joke is oneself.” — Clifton Fadiman
“If I had no sense of humor, I would long ago have committed suicide.” — Mahatma Gandhi
“Nothing shows a man's character more than what he laughs at.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
“Humor is a rubber sword. It allows you to make a point without drawing blood.” — Mary Hirsch
“Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing moving at different speeds.” — William James
“Learn to laugh at your troubles and you'll never run out of things to laugh at.” — Lyn Karol
“Dictators fear laughter more than bombs.” — Arthur Koestler “With the fearful strain that is on me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die.” — Abraham Lincoln
“Humor is reason gone mad.” — Groucho Marx
“A sense of humor is a major defense against minor troubles.” — Mignon McLaughlin
“A cheerful heart is good medicine.” — Proverbs 17:22
“Humor distorts nothing, and only false gods are laughed off their earthly pedestals.” — Agnes Repplier
“Humor is the affectionate communication of insight.” — Leo Rosten
“Humor is a reminder that no matter how high the throne one sits on, one sits on one's bottom.” — Taki
“Humor is emotional chaos remembered in tranquility.” — James Thurber
“Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” — Mark Twain “The secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow. There is no humor in heaven.” — Mark Twain
“Humor is despair refusing to take itself seriously.” — Arland Ussher
“Comedy (humor) is simply a funny way of being serious.” — Peter Ustinov “This world is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” — Horace Walpole
“Humor results when society says you can't scratch certain things in public, but they itch in public.” — Tom Walsh
“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.” — E.B. White
“Humor at its best is a kind of heightened truth, a super-truth.” — E. B. White
“Many a true word is said in jest.” — Unknown Origin
“Humor is the mind tickling the body.” — Unknown Origin
I have saved the best for last. Not only does this observation capture the essence of the subject, it does so in only four well-chosen words. It is from iconic comedian Jack Benny.
“Gags die, humor doesn't.”
Uses of Humor
Humor is one of the most effective means of conveying wisdom. Why? Because wise insights and advice can sometimes seem mundane or even self-evident; however when put in a humorous way, it causes thinking and reflection. Moreover, unpleasant truths are helped by expressing them humorously.
For example, until fairly recent times European monarchs employed court jesters not just to entertain themselves and their entourages, but to help keep them down to earth and in touch with reality. The job of the jester was to make these potentates see what was really going on in their kingdoms and the world beyond in order to help them better govern.
Queen Elizabeth the First of England (reign: 1558 – 1603) is believed to have once rebuked a court jester for not being sufficiently severe with her in his comments and observations. In short, he was failing in his duty to provoke thought rather than just laughs.
Even if we have difficulty pinning down precise definitions of humor, we know that its purpose is to convey information and ideas of fundamental importance. In other words, it is to teach something. Fortunately, we do know something about the use of humor in teaching.
Considerable pedagogical and psychological study has gone into the subject, especially in the past couple of decades. Much of this research has been on the use of humor in the traditional classroom; however some recent studies have looked at humor as part of distance learning via the internet. Although not always directly applicable, most of the findings can be — and should be — considered when trying to use humor in other circumstances, e.g. essays, speeches, group presentations, etc.
Here is the gist of what the research shows.
1. Humor will not necessarily cause learning, but it can create conditions conducive to learning. In particular, it:
a) Increases attention, motivation, excitement b) Increases interaction between students and the teacher c) Increases interaction between students and their peers d) Increases retention of the information and ideas being taught e) Encourages creativity and critical thinking f) Encourages participation from “invisible students,” i.e. those who are normally reluctant to take part in classroom activities g) Reduces anxiety and stress
2. Humor should never be forced or faked; it must seem natural and appropriate to the situation.
3. Humor should relate to the topic under discussion. The purpose is to facilitate teaching and enhance learning, not just to entertain.
4. Trying to be constantly humorous is counterproductive; it distracts from learning rather than enhancing it. Moreover, it is impossible and exhausting.
In the words Mark Twain, a recognized master of the craft, “Laughter without a tinge of philosophy is but a sneeze of humor. Genuine humor is replete with wisdom.”
Philip Yaffe was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1942 and grew up in Los Angeles, where he graduated from the University of California with a degree in mathematics and physics. In his senior year, he was also editor-in-chief of the Daily Bruin, UCLA’s daily student newspaper.
He has more than 40 years of experience in journalism and international marketing communication. At various points in his career, he has been a teacher of journalism, a reporter/feature writer with The Wall Street Journal, an account executive with a major international press relations agency, European marketing communication director with two major international companies, and a founding partner of a specialized marketing communication agency in Brussels, Belgium, where he has lived since 1974.
Books by this Author
• The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional • The Gettysburg Collection: A comprehensive companion to The Gettysburg Approach to Writing & Speaking like a Professional
• Actual English: English grammar as native speakers really use it • Gentle French: French grammar as native speakers really use it • What’d You Say? / Que Dites-Vous? Fun with homophones, proverbs, expressions, false friends, and other linguistic oddities in English and French
• The Little Book of BIG Mistakes • Extraordinary Ordinary Things • The Eighth Decade: Reflections on a Life • One-line Wonders: Humor in the Fast Lane
Books in “Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists” Series (at May 2013)
• Astronomy & Cosmology: Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists • Human Biology: Major Achievements of Lesser-known Scientists
Books in “The Essential Ten Percent” Series (at May 2013)
• College-level Writing: The Essential Ten Percent • Logical Thinking: The Essential Ten Percent • Psychology: The Essential Ten Percent • Public Speaking: The Essential Ten Percent • The Human Body: The Essential Ten Percent • Wise Humor: The Essential Ten Percent
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