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Category: Humor

Isle Be Damned
Of all the standard cartoon clichés, the guy marooned on a desert island might be the most common. The island is always impossibly small and sports a single palm, usually with coconuts. The guy (for some reason, it’s always a man) is otherwise alone in the picture, surrounded on all sides by a boundless sea.

Other elements can be freely added. Sea creatures, especially sharks, are a common prop. Any item from a universe of flotsam may wash up, ships may pass by, bottles come and go. It is even possible that another human might be included, perhaps on a nearby island. I would put such cartoons in a separate category, however. In its purest form, the man marooned is a trope for existential isolation filled with dread and devoid of meaning. Hence, the jokes.

Most of those jokes come at the expense of the strandee, making fun of his solitary and probably lethal circumstances. Even while he is being cruelly mocked, though, the poor schnook always manages to keep hope alive. Someday, he thinks, one of those ships will stop to rescue him. He’ll get a response to his message-in-a-bottle. Or something will wash up on his shore to make his life better or even to deliver him to safety.

His hope is eternal. But why is it that cartoonists never make fun of him for even daring to hope? His predicament is futile, after all. Those three coconuts are his only source of food and water. The sun beats down relentlessly, at least until a storm comes along and swamps his little sandbar, sending him to the bottom. He will surely perish alone on his forsaken island, and to have hope for any other outcome is clearly demented. So why not pile on him for that? His frustration is fair game for humor, as are his fears, his pain, his dreams, and his loneliness. Why should his misguided optimism be any different?

Is it possible that hope is a humor taboo, something that shouldn’t be joked about? It’s a good question, and I congratulate myself for asking it. On the only occasions I can remember someone laughing at hope, the laugher was either a monstrous super-villain or a right-wing radio talk show host. I don’t count these examples as actual humor, but rather sadism accompanied by maniacal barking. There is a difference.

So why does hope get off so easily? Of the seven heavenly virtues, it takes the least comedic guff. Chastity gets horselaughed all the time these days. Patience, charity, and kindness are at least the objects of mild joshing. Humility and temperance are so rare that they get no attention of any kind, and diligence was dropped as a virtue years ago because it’s no longer cool.

I’m not complaining, mind you. I am a big believer in hope, but I also think that nothing in this world should get a free pass from comedy.

So let me try this: Two men in a rowboat have beached on the island. One of the men, holding a bottle in one hand and looking intently at a note in the other, says “Yes, I’m sure this is the right place.” The other man looks in puzzlement at the island, seeing only the palm tree…and a single tombstone. Cue the laugh track.
Requiem for a Retort
There used to be a feature in The Saturday Evening Post called "The Perfect Squelch." In each installment the little story was different, but the punch line always delivered a sly, conversation-stopping retort to some clueless doof. The stories weren’t jokes so much as mildly clever put-downs.

There has always been a need for squelches. Some people really do need to shut up, and getting them to do so has never been easy, especially if we want to do it without spilling blood. The best squelches turn the squelchee’s own words against him in some surprising way; most of them depend on the specifics of the situations in which they are uttered and can only be used that one time.

There are exceptions, though. We have been lucky to live in a time when there have been two such exceptions. Indeed, they have become perhaps the most popular squelches of all time. It is with sadness, however, that I must recommend the permanent retirement of these honorable idioms.

Let me give you an example of the first. Say that your mate won’t stop reminding you to take the recycling out to the curb for tomorrow’s pick-up. If this situation, in your view, calls for a squelch, then you would simply say, “Hey, recycle this.

It is a crude idiom, to be sure, but it uses silliness to soften the blow. And, like most good squelches, it is not a direct blow, but more of a carom shot. What makes this squelch different from others is that it is endlessly adaptable to the specifics of a given exchange. That is the secret of its longevity: “blank this” can be used successfully with almost any transitive verb. Some of its other domestic uses, then, might include clean up this mess, do this outside, vacuum this, and please chew this with your mouth closed. It’s impossible in these cases to tell what exactly is being suggested, and that’s what stops the conversation.

The hook, obviously, is a tangential reference to the speaker’s pubic region and the invitation to the squelchee to do something metaphorical within it. No overtly crude words are used, but an atmosphere of crudeness is created. Behind this idiom’s staying power is its performance as an open-source squelch. And the sillier the verb, the better the squelch.

The other reusable idiom is a cousin to “blank this”. “I’ve got your blank right here” has the same attribute of open source adaptability, except that this blank calls for a noun rather than a verb. Also, whereas “blank this” is open only to transitive verbs, “I’ve got your blank right here” can use any noun. And since there are many more nouns than verbs to begin with, it is a much more versatile form. I would argue, however, that it is not as good a squelch as “blank this”. It’s more about the crudeness and less about the silliness, especially when it is accompanied (as it often is) by a crotch grab. As in, "I’ve got your squelching idiom right here (grab)."

Despite all of their virtues, the freshness of these expressions is well past its expiration date. After sixty years or so of use, they have almost no power left to amuse. Their novelty as open source squelches is gone, and all that is left hanging is the crudity.

Still, we ought to honor these expressions before they finally disappear from general usage. They may not have been perfect squelches (only truly spontaneous wit can produce those), but they have served well over that time by closing the mouths of those who really need to shut up. For that alone, we should salute them. And while you’re at it, salute this.
Aristotle, by most accounts, had a lousy sense of humor. If he was witty at all, my guess is that his jokes tended toward the too-clever-by-half, labored wordplay that does nothing but give smart people a bad name.

It should not surprise us, then, that the unit of measurement used by Aristotle in his discussions of comedy was the “hee”. He is credited, in fact, with the creation of this comedic constant, and evidence of its use can be found throughout his work (which, it must be said, is uniformly unfunny).

One need only look at Ari’s Poetics to see that he’s not the right person to be making such judgments. There, he spends most of his time grinding away on the grand catharsis provided by tragedy and devotes comparatively little space to comedy. Tragedy, he thought, could only happen in the lives of the great and powerful; comedy was left for the rest of us as a way of purging our unpleasant emotions. Isn’t that the very opinion you might expect from a person with no sense of humor?

The “hee”, we now know, is not broad enough in its applications to qualify as the fundamental unit of hilarity. “Hee” is most often used as a kind of titter — just the kind of response one might predict to the lame, too-clever humor that Aristotle probably favored. When we combine “hee” with “tee”, moreover, it descends into a giggle (or worse, a sniggle). Such a term could never encompass the concept of an ordinary laugh or cackle, much less a full-throated guffaw.

Such was the power of Aristotle’s intellect, however, and so great was his influence over Western thought that the “hee” persisted as philosophy’s standard unit of funniness well into the Middle Ages. Indeed, it continued to be used by anyone who thought seriously about humor… until the time of Thomas Aquinas. It was Aquinas who sought to overturn Aristotle’s influence and replace “hee” with “ho” as the measuring stick of merriment.

Sadly, St. Tom was no better equipped than his Greek predecessor to make such assessments. Although “ho” is a rounder, holier version of its predecessor, it is also clearly inadequate as a gauge of comicality. Anyone who seeks to attach humor to Godliness is setting himself up for failure. That is why ho-hoing survives today only within the Dominican order itself and in the quasi-amusement of such figures as Santa Claus and the Jolly Green Giant. If we are looking for a gold standard with which to value jollity, then “ho” is more like the bitcoin — not based on anything real.

In modern times, Jean-Paul Sartre has made the case for making “heh” the yardstick of humorousness. We see that this promulgation also fails. Although “heh”, like “hee”, is a recognized and widely used expression of mirth, it suffers from the same lack of comprehensiveness in meaning. Also, thanks to its frequent association with dark irony (let’s call it for what it is: sick humor), there is some doubt as to whether the “heh” has any real connection to levity at all.

As was the case with those other great minds, it seems that JP was not the right man for this job. Five minutes spent thinking about the implications of existentialism will make that obvious.

What’s left, then, is the “ha”. It has been the common man’s standard for funniness since chimps first chuckled, and it will no doubt be there after the last fancy-pants philosopher tries to explain humor and falls on his arse. Perhaps Aristotle was right after all, though not quite in the way he thought. Comedy, as he suggested, is a tool of catharsis best used by common folk. To that philosophical axiom I would add this corollary: since the common folk cannot take part in tragedy, so too should the great and powerful steer clear of humor. This applies to philosophers in particular; they can kill a joke by just looking at it.
An Impractical Joke
I bloodied my friend’s nose a while back, and I still feel badly about it. We weren’t fighting; no blows were exchanged. In fact, I wasn’t even there when it happened. But it wasn’t an accident, either.

The weapon was a Groom Mate manually operated nose hair trimmer. I still see them advertised at $19.95, and they’re not available in stores. I can see why; they wreak bloody havoc on the inside of your nostrils. Just ask my friend; I gave it to him as a gift. The gift, I must confide, was meant as a joke. My question here is: was it a funny joke?

Let me state right now that I am not a fan of “practical” jokes, especially those that cause pain or injury. I suppose that a surprise party is one form of practical joke, and such events are pretty hard not to like, but there is very little real humor even with those. Some one is tricked and made to feel a little foolish, but ultimately the source of enjoyment is the surprise of the “victim” and the show of affection given to him. Surprise is a critical element in most humor, too, but I’m sorry — I don’t see any joke in simply tricking people. It can be fun, maybe, but not a joke.

Practical jokes are like a thrill ride at the boardwalk — heightened expectations followed by shock and disorientation, then exhilaration, and in the end, laughing. Unless you barf, in which case there is no laughing (at least not by you).

It’s the same with a practical joke. If it results in barfing, unconsciousness, organ failure, brain death, or bleeding, there might be some laughing, but it would only be of the mean-spirited variety. Think Nelson Muntz of “The Simpsons” (“HA-ha!”). I don’t count that as humor, either. Every movie must have its shot-to-the-balls scene, and every audience will laugh at that scene, but just because they do does not make it funny.

So what about my friend’s bloody nose? Was that my Nelson Muntz moment? Was it a cruel jest and therefore no jest at all? Allow me to mount my defense. For starters, this particular version of the Groom Mate nose hair trimmer came to me through my uncle’s estate. It was, then, a dead man’s nose hair trimmer. I cannot explain to you why that is funny, but it is.

But is that funny enough by itself to cancel out the pain and bleeding, enough to turn agony into laughter? Perhaps not, but consider this: my friend has large, oddly shaped nostrils; nostrils so cavernous that even the shyest bat would be tempted to hole up there. I cannot tell you if there are ancient paintings on the interior walls of his nose, but if there are, you can be sure they are amusing ones. Amusing because nostrils are the funniest apertures in the human body. Consequently, nose hair trimmers, by virtue of their close association with nostrils, are also funny. What’s more, they are funny independently of the unfunny carnage they might cause.

I wasn’t sure when I gave my friend the trimmer that he would actually use it. It had been fully sterilized, of course (what do you take me for?) but it was, after all, a dead man’s nasal mower. I will not use my uncertainty as an excuse, however; I certainly should have known he’d try it. Why wouldn’t I? I’d tried it myself, with the same painful and bloody results. Perhaps that is the lynchpin of my defense: I had used this patently ridiculous product, and I had felt my friend’s pain even before he had.

Even with all this, I’m still not certain the joke was funny. When he phoned me a couple of days later to tell me what had happened to his honker, I did feel some guilt. There wasn’t that much damage, really — a little nip and a little blood — but it was enough to make me tell him I was sorry.

Which raises another question: is it still an apology if you deliver it while laughing?
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Yes, voting matters. Polls do not.
~ H, Santa Cruz