I FREQUENTLY GET LETTERS FROM readers asking me to explain how humor works. Of course they don't ask in exactly those words. Their actual wording is more like:
"Just where do you get off, Mr. Barry, comparing the entire legal profession to flatworms?" Or: "How about if I come down to that newspaper and stick a wastebasket up your nose?"
People come to me with this kind of probing question because I happen to be a major world expert on humor. I deal constantly with sophisticated humor questions such as: Would it be funnier to have the letter say, "How about if I come down to that newspaper and stick an IBM Selectric typewriter up your nose?" Or should I maybe try to work in a subtle political joke, such as: "How about if I come down to that newspaper and stick Vice President Quayle up your nose?" This is the kind of complex philosophical issue that I am forced to wrestle with, hour after hour, until 10:30 a.m., when "Wheel of Fortune" comes on.
After years of pursuing this regimen, I've learned certain fundamental truths about humor. One of them is that "weasel" is a funny word. You can improve the humor value of almost any situation by injecting a weasel into it:
WRONG: "Scientists have discovered a 23rd moon orbiting Jupiter."
RIGHT: "Scientists have discov- ered a giant weasel orbiting Jupiter."
WRONG: "U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich."
RIGHT: "U.S. Rep. Weasel Gingrich."
But the most important humor truth of all is that to really see the humor in a situation, you have to have perspective. "Perspective" is derived from two ancient Greek words: "persp," meaning "something bad that happens to somebody else," and "ective," meaning "ideally somebody like Donald Trump."
Take for example funerals. Funerals are not funny, which is why we don't laugh during them unless we just can't help ourselves. On the other hand, if a funeral occurs way on the other side of the world, and it involves the late Mr. Ayatollah "Mojo" Khomeini, and the mourners are so upset that they start grabbing garments and souvenir body parts off of the deceased to the point where what's left of him could be laid to rest in a standard Good & Plenty box, then we have no choice but to laugh until our dentures fall into our laps.
An even better example of humor perspective involves a masseuse named Danette Sadle whom I met in San Francisco. (Let me stress, for the benefit of those readers who happen to be my wife, that I met her in a totally nonmassage situation.)
Danette had a regular client who decided to give her husband a professional massage as a gift, thinking that he would enjoy it. When the husband showed up, however, he was very nervous. He said he'd never had a massage before, and he was concerned about getting undressed, and specifically whether he was supposed to leave his underpants on. Danette assured him that she was a professional, and that he'd be covered at all times by a sheet, but he was still very concerned. So Danette said, Look, leave your underpants on, take them off, whatever makes you comfortable. Then she left the room while he undressed.
When she came back, the man was under the sheet looking as relaxed as a person being strapped down for brain surgery via ice pick. So Danette, trying to be as calm and nonthreatening as possible, walked up to him, reached out her hand and touched the man's back at EXACTLY THE MOMENT that the famous World Series earthquake struck.
Let me stress that there was NOTHING FUNNY about this earthquake, unless you have the perspective of hearing Danette describe how the man's entire body, in defiance of gravity, twitched violently into the air like a trout on amphetamines and landed on the other side of
"It's usually more relaxing than this," said Danette.
"It's a good thing I kept my underpants on!" said the man.
These are words that a lot of people could stand to remember more often, but that is not my point. My point is that by having perspective on things we can find humor in virtually any situation, except of course for genuinely tragic events that cause serious trouble for large numbers of people. Or anything involving