Below the Beltway

Gene Weingarten teaches you to be funny

Below the Beltway
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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, June 13, 2010

This just in:

I teach a class in English as a second language. My students struggle with humor, trying to be funny in a language that is not their own. Can you help them by outlining the basic forms and structures of English-language comedy? -- Sarah Hopson

Dear Sarah -- It is indeed a tragedy when the great gift of humor is denied to people merely because of a language barrier. Fortunately, you came to the right place! By deconstructing some timeless jokes, I shall create a brief tutorial in American Humor Appreciation so your students can experience the same unbridled joy as the rest of us.

"Take my wife ... please."

This classic Henny Youngman formulation deftly combines the rhetorical devices of irony and surprise: At first, Henny appears to be referencing his wife as an example of something; then, we learn that he is instead offering the lady to anyone who will take her off his hands.

We laugh, but why?

Because in Henny's comedic dilemma, we recognize a basic truth: Over time, love often becomes a straitjacket. As the physical imperfections of aging inexorably take their toll, sexual desire diminishes; meanwhile, increased familiarity with a person will sometimes create an emotional numbness, leading to a poisonous domestic environment that can scar us so badly we are never again capable of love, trust or the capacity for true happiness.

Okay, possibly that joke might not have been a great example of unbridled joy. Fortunately, I've got a million of 'em.

"Did you hear about the constipated mathematician? He worked it out with a pencil!"

"Worked it out!" See, that's hilarious! Okay, it's true that on a deeper level this is funny because in this amusingly exaggerated battle between a man and his lower intestinal tract, we recognize the fundamental absurdity of our existence: Life is an inevitably fatal disease. Sooner or later, our own bodies will assassinate us.

"Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? A: Only one, but the light bulb really has to want to change!"

Shrinks are funny! Zey all talk like Freud, mit faintly evil Cherman accents. Though the message of this joke is a bit disturbing, to tell the truth, it certifies a central experience of psychiatry: Patients frequently resist making the very alterations of behavior that will bring them relief. We are the proverbial man who keeps hitting himself in the head with a hammer; unlike that man, though, we are not doing it because it feels so good when we stop. We are doing it because, in one of life's cruelest perversities, we dread pain, yet crave it.


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