The food had been purchased. The guests were already arriving. The plumber watched my wife slump into me, and me slump into her, a Dust Bowl portrait of despair. Something had to be done. The plumber began barking orders. “Go to every sink and tub and shower in the house and turn on all faucets full blast.”
When I returned, he was straddling the toilet, like a colossus. He had removed his fancy equipment. He was wielding a rubber plunger — 1800s technology — and using his body like a piston. Schmorph, schmorph, schmorph. His neck veins were bulging. After two minutes, there was a giant sucking sound, and the house was Clean.
Here comes my top-of-the-line line: I wrote that the plumber was “a modern-day John Henry, a stool-drivin’ man.”
My humor is puny compared with the jokes of those who came before. If I have achieved any success, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants, squinting down at their work, stealing what I could. I take notes, all stored in my head. I forget almost everything instantaneously, but I will remember a good joke forever. Here are some favorites, working backward:
Dave Barry, covering the 1984 presidential primaries, noted that John Glenn was a dull speaker: He wrote: “I doubt he could electrify a fish tank if he threw a toaster into it.”
Robert Benchley defined opera as “where a guy gets stabbed in the back, and instead of bleeding, he sings.”
And then there’s Dorothy Parker.
All humor is hard to do, but written humor is the hardest because you are naked out there. If you write a mediocre screenplay, it can be saved by great acting. A cartoonist gets to use images to enhance the joke. A stand-up comic adds personality, body language and timing. But for the writer of words, that’s the only tool he or she has, and sometimes, you give yourself an additional burden, based on the inexplicable idea (older than “Beowulf”) that communication is somehow deepened when the ends of certain lines sound like the ends of other lines.
Parker did this. It seems easy. It’s not: “I like to have a martini,/ Two at the very most. /After three I’m under the table, /After four I’m under the host.”
My favorite early-20th-century humor writer was Stephen Leacock, a joyful misanthrope who found much to lampoon in human behavior, particularly the overheated prose in Victorian drama. In a short story, he wrote: “Lord Ronald said nothing. He flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse and rode madly off in all directions.”
My notes go back to the beginning of time. The first joke that has been preserved, from the ancient Sumerians, was: “Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”
It’s got an odd double negative, but weak syntax is no impediment here. Farts are the original joke, an observed absurdity of the human condition.
Actually, there is something older. I wrote about it once. It is peekaboo, a game humans have played with our children, possibly from the age of troglodytes, because troglodytes loved their children, too. That love is why we are here today.
A baby is suddenly denied access to her mother’s face because a hand covers it. The baby’s face registers existential panic. Where has Mommy gone? Am I here all alone? Then, Mommy’s face again. The anxiety is banished. The baby smiles, then laughs.
It is our primordial response to fear: We laugh, to avoid crying. Everything is ephemeral. This is the very engine of humor. I’m laughing now. Writing this column has been exhilarating, and terrifying, for 21 years, and that’s all you can ask of life. I am grateful for it, and for the relationship I have had with all of you who read it — from the delightful dorks who thought everything I said was hilarious to those who looked in only to get riled over what the rude old coot was spouting this week. I will miss you all.
Thanks to Richard Thompson (2000-2004), Eric Shansby (2004-2018) and Alex Fine (2018-2021) for illustrating my column over the years.
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