Pratfalls, Punchlines, and Pacts

Today’s guest post comes from Clyde.

I recently stumbled across a little-known Thurber cartoon. I haven’t seen it almost 50 years.

The cartoon shows a distinctly Thurberian man wearing a bowlerhat and a startled look as he half reclines on a chaise lounge, as so many Thurber people do. Seated next to him is a young woman with hanging hair and and enraptured look saying “Have you fordotten our ittle suicide pact?”

I had an English course in college in which the instructor took us off into analysis of comedy, which, as he well knew, is a futile question. It is almost impossible to explain what makes us laugh, why things are funny. I presented this cartoon as an example of inexplicable humor. I do not know why I like this joke so much. The problem in the class was that the instructor did not think it was funny, nor did many of my classmates. Several people, in those touchy 1960’s, thought it was sexist.

We soon discovered that there was wide range of taste in humor in the class. Also, we got into that fuzzy region of trying to separate wit from comedy, from humor, from burlesque, from bombast, from camp, from satire, etc. We arrived at no real answers, but, oh, my, what a good class that was.

Isaac Asimov wrote a short story called “Jokester” (in Earth is Room Enough,1957) in which a scientist tries to find out where jokes come from, how they start. He discovers that they are implanted in human society by a superior alien race which is using them to study human psychology. Think about that a minute, just how much comedy does show about us. In Asimov’s story the moment the scientist discovers this truth, the aliens remove all the jokes and human life becomes bleak.

When I directed plays I was quite good at inventing humorous business, especially for a melodrama done in the Two Harbors band shell, the first of many we did in the mid 1980’s. I took a basic Samuel French-published melodrama and localized it. Instead of the heroine saying “He deserted me in the wicked city,” she said, “He left me in the wicked city of Superior.” You may have to be from the Duluth area to get that. We even did a drawn out version of the Groucho Marx “walk this way” joke that was very funny.

We made lots of fun of Duluth. “I had to go to Duluth . . . once” [Long deep sighs of sympathy from the whole cast, including those not on stage who stepped out to sigh and some plants in the audience who arose to sigh. We even once did it with all in perfect unison.]

One joke we could never make work. The line from the hero was “I am going to go way out west.” We wanted to add to that. “I am going to go way out west to ________.” We could come up with nothing funny. We tried Clover Valley (east of Duluth), Floodwood, Brainerd, Fargo, and several others. We had him point east or say “Bayfield.” There must be a joke there, but we could not find it.

My own favorite was having the heroine cry great sobs at the front of the stage while begging sympathy from all the women for the evil the villain had done to her. She then wrung out water from a sopping wet handkerchief she was oh so carefully handling while daubing her eyes.

As you can tell I like broad dumb humor. “Airplane” is one of my favorite movies. And I do like wit, the wry turn of phrase or events, as well as offbeat oddball humor, such as Thurber cartoons. I do not like physical humor or humor based on someone’s embarrassment or jokes that belittle, which is why I gave up network television 30 years ago. I must reluctantly admit that I do not find many of the classic pieces of comedy funny: Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy (just get the damn piano up the stairs, would you?), Abbot and Costello, W. C. Fields.

Now your turn. I’ve let you into the dark places of my psyche.

What makes you laugh? What does not make you laugh?

59 thoughts on “Pratfalls, Punchlines, and Pacts”

  1. Good morning. For several years I was responsible for doing educational meetings on sustainable farming. The main speaker for these events told me I should tell some jokes to get the meetings started. I doubted that I would be any good at doing this, but I did manage to find some jokes I could tell that worked for me. Some of them were adaptions of jokes similar to the the way you adapted jokes, Clyde. Thanks you, Clyde, for very good guest blog offering this morning.

    The lead speaker at the meetings I held had a joke that he adapted to the tillage system he used. He said he planted by the sign of the moon. He could tell if the ground was warm enough to plant by pulling down his pants and sitting on the ridges in his ridge tilled fields. If he couldn’t sit on the ridges with his bare rear end, it was too cold.


      1. There are some farmers that think it is best to plant when the moon is in a certain stage such as full moon. The joke was that the farmer mooned the ground instead checking the phase of the moon. Actually this farmer probably had a soil thermometer he used to find out if the soil was warm enough to proceed with planting.


        1. Yes, they use planting by the moon in bio-dynamic farming according to what I have heard. I always tried to stick to basic good farming practices, but some farmers love to try unusual ways of farming and there is no way to be sure that these unusual practices are without merit.


        2. I think there are some very good farmers who are doing bio-dynamic farming. It is includes many excellent farming practices that fit well with organic and sustainable farming. They do include some practices that are unusual. The unusual practices, such as planting by the stages of the moon, are not the most important part of this approach to farming as I understand it.


  2. i have an isacc asimov book on the science of humor or the anatomy of humor or something like that. it dissects the goings on and make me understand why i like what i like.

    why do mice have such little balls?

    because not too many of them know how to dance

    unexpected is my personal favorite.


    1. My mother’s favorite joke: What happened to the woman who did not know the difference between Vaseline and putty? All her windows fell out.


  3. i always like the demeaning humor if its done well.

    doctor: youre too fat
    patient: i want a second opinion
    doctor : youre ugly too

    it doesnt get any better than that does it?


    1. Good to see you back Steven
      I love Woody Allen
      [first lines]
      Alvy Singer: [addressing the camera] There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.


      1. tim I think there is a deep philosophic truth or observation at the heart of both of those jokes. College profs in philosophy and psychology have spent a great deal of serious work on the “Marxian” conundrum. These two jokes are deeply rooted in our experience of life.


  4. Watching TV is the main evening activity at our house and we did watch lots of sitcoms. We do way too much TV watching. Crime shows are the ones we watch most of the time now and they don’t contain much humor. There must be a good show that makes fun of crime shows, but I can’t think of one. They must have done at least one skit on Saturday Night Live that made fun of crime shows.

    I thought the early SNL shows were very funny. I am not much of a fan of The Big Bang Theory which is one of top sitcoms presently. I thought it was funny when I first saw it. I think the humor is growing a little thin and the actors are good, but not good enough to do the same kinds of jokes over and over again. Third Rock From the Sun, which had some humor sort of like the humor on Big Bang, seemed to hold up better for me and I think this was due to the very outstanding actors on that show.


  5. Louis black is the current political humorist stand up that I enjoy. He is excellent at observing the stuff going on and simply pointing it out. Lots of flying fs
    Bill Cosby was wonderful at making observations and talking about them
    Louis c k is a funny guy who is a bit offensive but a damn riot if once you get past the rough edges.
    Paula poundstone Rita rudner ( now full time las Vegas)
    George carlin may have been the best ever.
    Great joke tellers
    Humorist is a whole nother thing


  6. David sedaris, Kevin Kling, and who else? I love the people who make everyday life so meaningful and funny at the same time. Give me more give me more give me more.
    My daughters are coming off kid age into young adult age and the transition these days is a bit different for those who were raised with 24/7 tv channels for kids. There used to be a process where you would go through the 2 hours of kids shows on Saturday morning tv and graduate to family tv then to your own choices of romance, westerns adventure humor sports etc. today you can stay in idiot adolescent humor till the cows come home with no cross reference to other taste. The David letterman show with no audience this week lete David realize his stuff is different with no audience to respond. He says a lot of it isn’t tht funny if there is no one there to respond and it seems to make him question the real humor in it. The idiot shows on kids tv would be lost without the laugh track. I have more than a little trouble with kid tv today. Leave it to beaver Andy griffin Mary Tyler Moore, good stories with humor plugged in. Good formula huh


  7. Morning all. I was just having a conversation in the car today about this topic, lamenting that the current spate of “funny” movies (Hangover, Knocked Up, The Campaign, etc.) leave me cold.

    I am not a big sitcom watcher. Like Clyde, I do not care for the belittling, mean spirit of many of these shows. I have never seen an entire episode of Friends or Seinfeld or many others. Never cared much for Cheers. Unlike Jim, I do like the Big Bang Theory. It is the only sitcom I watch and I do find myself laughing out loud occasionally. But I’ve noticed that when I watch it with the teenager, we’re laughing at different lines.

    Most of the humor I like is word-based – I love a really good pun. Part of the reason I enjoy the Trail – fun with words!


    1. I’m with you, VS – give me puns, word play and shaggy dog stories that end in “groaners.” I love the biting wit and word play from Shakespeare. Part of why I loved “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and “West Wing” because they were shows that weren’t comedies, but weren’t afraid to be funny – mostly by using words and word play. And then there’s Jasper Fforde…


  8. I definitely prefer my jokes witty rather than scatological. I’m also one of THOSE people who likes referential humor (I even have a soft spot for puns). Terry Pratchett is utter genius, as far as I’m concerned, as is Mystery Science Theater 3000. I love Joss Whedon’s banter, and Jackie Chan’s brilliant physical comedy. Most sitcoms bore me, probably because they’re relationship-centered, but I enjoy “The Big Bang Theory” (I agree it’s getting a little old, but it’s still about the only sitcom I can relate to). “Community”, “30 Rock” and “Parks and Rec” are good, too. I hate mean, put-down jokes–if I never hear another woman comedian talking about how fat she is, it’ll be too soon–and generally don’t care for slapstick. Harold Lloyd over Three Stooges, any day!


  9. Morning–

    A day without a laugh is like _______.
    (You fill in the blank; I’m afraid to go out on that limb).

    I love to amuse myself. There’s a student here that has all the answers to everything. If I don’t distract her and get her going off on philosophical questions she’ll drive me crazy.
    One day she asked if I was happy with the show. I said no, that there was always room for improvement. She asked why and I said only God could make perfection; Was she an Atheist? And when she sputtered I knew I had her hooked. I led her off into Agnostic’s, the Navaho broken circle and What is it about her God anyway??
    At that point I can pretty much walk away and she hasn’t made me crazy.


  10. Given the topic, this isn’t really OT. Liam had his first Halloween last night, and it had several comic moments. Liam dressed as the scariest animal he knows: a bear. At several doors, adults said, “Oh, how cute! We have a little Pooh here.” Liam has been intensively involved in bathroom training, so this was offensive. He’d draw himself up and say, “I’m a BEAR, not poop!”

    Molly and John kept trying to get Liam to compliment the decorations, some of which were spectacular, but Liam was fixated on candy. Then he rang a bell that was answered by a scantily clad young woman whose tank top was stretched to the limits of the tensile strength of the cloth. She bent down with the candy dish, her bosom tipped forward and right at Liam’s eye level. Liam sang out with gusto, “Great PUMPKINS!” Molly and John were able to run down the sidewalk into the darkness before collapsing in hoots of laughter.


  11. I love dry, witty humor, play on words, etc. Some British humor is absolutely exhausting to sit through. Thurber, Sedaris, ridiculous things that happen to real people (including myself)-I love it all. I find sit coms pretty boring these days.


  12. I tend to find humor in politics just lately – like an in-depth article about what’s wrong with the new health care law. The author went out of his way to declare himself “neutral” as he took it apart piece by piece, but I counted his use of the term “perverse” a dozen times. I found it funny.

    In terms of sitcoms or stand-up comedians, there’s something noticeable in my system that doesn’t allow me to laugh whenever I know that I’m supposed to, or when there’s an expectation (need?) for me to laugh. Real life events (organic), however, send me into instant laughter. A gem just this week was hearing how my dear daughter-in-law’s laptop died. I’d been trying to connect with her via email for almost two weeks. My son told me, “You’ll never guess how it died, Mom”, and went on to describe a little daily ritual with 20-month old Leo. Stacia, his wife, thinks it’s important to give Leo a few minutes of “no clothes time” each morning. She’d been on the floor catching up on her emails and slipped into the kitchen for more coffee. When she came back, Leo was standing there peeing all over the keyboard! Now THAT’S what I call funny!!


  13. Great topic, Clyde.

    To some extent I think humor is an individual thing, but it also has definite cultural influences. What Americans find funny isn’t necessarily the same thing that Danes laugh at. I’m with those who don’t like mean-spirited jokes; I think racist jokes are the worst. I don’t much care for the excessive use of the f-word either. I agree that Carlin was brilliant, but I think he’d have been just as funny, and whole lot more pleasurable to listen to, without all those f-bombs. An occasional one, fine, but a constant barrage of them just doesn’t do it for me.

    In general I don’t care for stand-up comedy, although I do like some stand-up comedians, Paula Poundstone is one of them. Sometimes it depends on the mood I’m in, but mostly, I find rapid fire jokes, one after another, very taxing to listen to. I like situational comedy better, funny stories with surprising twists and turns, are great. I like British humor a lot; that whole zany Monty Python gang are priceless, but I can’t stand Benny Hill or Mr. Bean. Loved Chaplin but never could understand why people thought the Marx Brothers funny. Woody Allen’s quirky, self-deprecating humor speaks to me, and I loved Danny Kaye. I like Garrison Keillor’s wit; David Sedaris and Kevin Kling are also favorites of mine.

    There are times that I’ll find something so funny that I just can’t stop laughing. This happens from time to time when reading the Bulletin Board in the Pioneer Press. When Hans asks what’s so funny, I’m usually helpless to tell him because I’m laughing so hard I’m crying. At times like those, he just walks away, shaking his head, he knows there’s no point in trying to understand.


  14. My eye finds the discordant thing, the visual joke, the odd juxtaposition. I just saw your basic Scandinavian little old lady in standard attire except she was wearing cowboy boots.
    Frank Capra’s movies are visual delights that not many notice. For instance when Jimmy Stewart sits before Mr. Potter’s desk asking for a loan in the background is a bust of Napoleon, the chair Jimmy Stewart sits in is very low, much lower than normal, and Mr. Potter’s wheel chair sits much higher than it should.


  15. It’s hard to know what is gong to strike my funny bone. Sometimes it’s a visual image I get of something when someone is talking, sometimes it’s something that someone says that just strikes me as funny, and sometimes it’s grammar or punctuation humor.

    Here’s something that made me laugh:

    When we were on our way to Kansas City, MO, we stopped at MacDonalds for a quick lunch (note: I do not consider what I can get at Macdonalds Good Food, but it is quick). While sitting at a table eating, one of the workers was wiping some tables nearby. “And how is everything?” he asked. I about died laughing. What should I have said, “There’s something wrong with this food – it tastes like something I would get at Macdonalds”?

    And here is an example of some bad spelling that cracked me up:


    1. One other thing that makes me laugh: you all on the Baboon Trail. I mean the good kind of laughing, not mean-spirited, but just plain funny. That’s one of the first things that attracted me to the Trail…I read some of the archives, chuckling to myself, and thinking, “These people are funny! And fun!” Thanks for all the laughs over the past year-plus that I’ve been hanging out here.


  16. OT Tuesday night is going to be strange for me, sitting around listening to the vote totals of one of the most momentous elections of my life. Is there any interest in having a baboon party to share that experience?


    1. I will be at my precinct till at least 9:00, but if there is going to be a gathering I could join late. Usually by the time I get home most of the races have been declared, but there are always exceptions – Bush v. Gore, Coleman v. Franken, etc.


  17. I always find humor in groups of people: there is lots of room for humor when a group of people has a shared experience .

    I went to a Grateful Dead concert at Alpine Valley with a group of people from Faribault and Mankato in 1984. I had just gotten to know the Mankato people. We camped near Alpine Valley in a farmer’s hayfield. He was letting carloads of Deadheads into his field for $3 a car. We were among the first there and headed to the back of the field near a woods. We set up our tents and went to the concert. We returned (having a great time) at around 2 a.m. and Fish put a cassette into his car stereo and set the speakers on the roof of the car. We were laughing and partying and carrying on, and so was everyone else in that hayfield. Pretty soon we saw the farmer coming around the field, telling everyone to be quiet. He was trying to tell everyone that they were disturbing everyone else. Any Deadhead could see that this was not the case. There were hoots and laughter and the sound of car speakers being turned up much too loud. The farmer got to our campsite and we were already grinning from ear to ear. The farmer said, “You need to be–,” and Fish cranked up the volume drowning him out; just as quickly turning it down. Every time the farmer started to tell us to be quiet, Fish would crank up the volume and drown out his voice, then turn it back down. Of course we all started laughing. The farmer became more and more frustrated and we were just about rolling on the ground with laughter. Finally the farmer screamed as loud as he could, “I’LL GIVE YOU ONE MINUTE TO STOP LAUGHING!!” This is still the funniest thing that I have ever heard in my life and I’m hardly able to type this without ROTFLWMP. We are all still friends today and all we have to say to one another is “I’ll give you one minute to stop laughing!” and we’re weeping and incontinent.


    1. My “other” (non-BBC) book club considers it a successful evening if we can get at least one person laughing so hard they can’t speak. This happens at 10 out of 12 meetings at least. Bonus points if we get one particular member to fall out of her chair. Sometimes we even talk about the book…


        1. We are a relatively young book club at a mere 18 years (I remember mostly because we threw ourselves a 10 year anniversary party…and I couldn’t drink b/c I was pregnant with Daughter…who is now 8…I did, however, dance recklessly and with abandon). I have known most of the women in that group more than half my life – several since before I was old enough to vote (or drink alcohol, for that matter).


      1. Decoded: Dan Ackroyd as Julia Child – the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – Christopher Guest as Nigel in This is Spinal Tap – Dianne Wiest shushing John Cusack in Bullets Over Broadway – Gene Wilder in Young Frankenstein…followed by the whinnying horse, of course.


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