Introduction

Guy goes to a doctor, doctor says, “You’re gonna die.” Guy says, “Oh my god! How long do I have?” “10.” “10 what?! Weeks? Months?” “9 . . . 8 . . .” There are two human activities that result in physical pleasure so intense that it produces a series of helpless, high-pitched vocal spasms. You’ve chosen a book about the one that uses fart jokes. Of course, comedy’s a lot more than that. Yet the closer we look, the more mysterious it becomes. It started out simply enough; in ancient Greece, a comedy Spasm ended with a wedding, tragedy with a funeral. (But remember, you can’t spell funeral without fun.) Thousands of years later, Mel Brooks declared, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger; comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” Still,

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the differences resist easy categorization. Jerry Lewis said comedy is a man in trouble; okay, so what’s drama? Rodney Dangerfield told this joke: “I go to a bar, bartender asks, ‘What’ll you have?’ I say, ‘Surprise me.’ So he shows me a naked picture of my wife.” Surprise is the key to humor (“Peekaboo!” is everyone’s first comedy routine), but surprise is the key to all art and entertainment; it’s what makes a story gripping, a ballet thrilling, a painting unforgettable.* So how is comedy different? Please note this admission does not entitle you to a refund, but I don’t know. No one knows why putting one particular word at the end of a sentence makes that sentence funny rather than sad. (Or two words in the case of “in bed.”) When we describe how humor works, we describe how all art forms work—there is no principle of comedy that doesn’t also apply to drama. So why investigate comedy at all? Why try to discover its secret? Why not just leave it alone in its ethnic-joked, pie-splattered mystery? Because, as a wise man has written, “Humor is an essential element of human identity.” ** Knowledge of the principles and practice of comedy is critical to understanding history, psychology, mass media, religion, and real estate investment. (One of those is a lie.) E. B. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, thought examining comedy was futile. “Humor can be dissected as a frog can,” he wrote, “but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.” Well, who’s he to talk—the spider died, how funny is that? If dissecting a discipline killed enjoyment, no one would study anything they liked. Yes, explaining a joke can make it not funny,
*  And not just art and entertainment—Ron Graham, president of the American Mathematical Society: “What makes a mathematical result beautiful or a  proof elegant is the element of surprise.” **  Misch: Funny: The Book, 2012, p. 1.

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InTroduCTIon

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but nonstop yucks isn’t the goal of this book. (Assuming you don’t have the copy embedded with laughing gas on page 8.) It’s to look at humor in general and American humor in particular; introduce/ remind and/or get you to think about significant works; and show how American comedy developed out of what Martin Luther King called, in a slightly different context, the content of our characters. We’ll discuss the origins, definition, rules, and purpose of comedy, and what it tells us about the human condition. In bed. So let the dissection begin! My examples won’t necessarily be the best or even the most representative, just the ones I’m most interested in. And some will be old. Why? Guy reads Hamlet for the first time; friend asks, “How’d you like it?”; guy says, “It’s nothing but a bunch of quotations.” When you know the foundations of comedy, contemporary movies and TV shows are huge heaping bowlsful of quotations; this book will talk about the originals. From time to time, the author will project through these pages, using only the power of his mind, examples of humor that illustrate his points. For those unable to receive these projections, links are provided at the end of this book (in a section cunningly entitled “Links”) for viewing these examples over the far-flung series of tubes we call the Interwebs. Speaking of which, due to the skinflint lily-livered publisher refusing to spring for a coffee-table tome that could have made me rich beyond my wildest dreams technical considerations, this book doesn’t include interactive media. But for the most part I’m not a fan of what the Internet calls user-generated content, which gets most of its comedy from being “real.” A laugh is a laugh, I accept that, but art isn’t real, it’s artificial. And it’s not democratic—it’s elitist, created by someone who uses special skills to alter reality and, in doing so, reveal some higher form of truth. (Hey, I just defined artist!) Still, while accepting the cruciality of professional standards underpinning the creation of art and entertainment, I have to admit a cat flushing a toilet is funny . . .

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See link 1: Glorious medley of cats flushing toilets to the unforgettable melody “It’s a cat / flushing the toilet.” Finally, because the subject of Humor is so vast, by necessity this treatise will be half-vast. And that is one of three puns in this book.

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