Chris Miksanek: Humor Writing Manifesto
By Chris Miksanek
©2007 Chris Miksanek
It was published in the July 20, 2007 Rochester Post Bulletin.
Chris Miksanek: In Defense of the Blonde Joke
In defense of the blonde joke
Though the oldest jokes known are the so-called “Philogelos,” a Byzantine collection of barbs aimed at the “scholastikos,” the over-educated men of the era with no common sense, humor is thought to go back quite a bit further. Champollion, for example, wrote of a particularity curious cartouche he encountered on an obelisk in Aswan. “As I understand it,” Napoleon’s decipherer wrote, “one high priest was asking another, ‘how many Sumerians does it take to light a fat lamp?’” Regrettably some of the glyphs were unreadable but an adjacent writing depicted the sensitivity training both were compelled to attend.
I know these things because I am both a student and teacher of humor and I take joking very serious. Recent complaints that this newspaper has published material (to wit, pun intended, various jokes du jour and tongue-in-cheek coverage of the Hillary nutcracker) that offended the sensitivities of some readers compel me to respond.
Readers’ emotive complaints have ranged from “I don’t want to have to explain this PG joke to my child,” to the predictable, “This may be offensive to someone.” The former, we can unceremoniously dismiss. There are a lot of items in a daily newspaper more difficult to explain to a child: senseless murders in our streets, genocide in Darfur, and a curious obsession with the reckless lifestyles of various celebrities whose collective contribution to our culture will be as ephemeral as an Etch a Sketch doodle. It is precisely for these grim bits of news that we need the necessary respite; humor reminds us of the diametric while at the same time relieving us of it if for just a moment.
The nigglings of the hypersensitive, however, are not so simple to dismiss.
The stoic chiropractor who says, “You wouldn’t think slipping on a banana peel was funny if you saw some of the X-rays I’ve seen.
The zealot who chides, “I hope your ‘don’t touch me I’m on disability’ joke was worth an eternity in hell.”
The high horse equestrian bemoaning the Polish, Italian or Yiddish joke in any form who envisions a world where all chickens will be free to cross roads without having their motives being called into question.
The wet blankets. The
party-poopers. The killjoys.
The morose souls who find little to laugh about like the environmentalist who refuses to enjoy the mirthful folklore of Paul Bunyan because “it glorifies deforestation” or the progressive who sees the Vlasic Pickles stork as big a threat as Joe Camel because “we need to teach kids the truth about sex.”
These cultural gadflies, fortunately, are few in number and it would be a mistake to pander to every one of their lamentations. Take away every joke that might offend someone and you’re left with a handful of knock-knocks.
Worse. We are risk of an ethos less vibrant than Pita bread. One void of genuine interpersonal communication where conversations are guarded, relationships are cautious, and our true personalities masked. A bland existence, to be sure.
That humor has a place in our society, though, is not a license for unbridled jocularity. Ninety-eight percent of comedy is timing and something is funny only with the complicity of the audience and the moment. The technical quip that “there are 10 kinds of people: those that understand binary and those that don't” would be greeted with a confusing stare by psychoanalysts whose own tale of the “extroverted engineer who looks at your shoes when he’s talking to you” would go over with the technicians like a Hooters restaurant in the Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
The only “humor” that is never funny is that which is mean-spirited. When bullying is encoded in wit and the punchline is misused for hate’s coup de grâce. But because we are such a broad and diverse people, remarkably, very little else is off-limits.
In “Laughter in Hell: The Use of Humor During the Holocaust,” author Steve Lipman describes the, albeit grim, humor that helped victims of civilization’s greatest atrocity survive. At AA meetings members may apologize for a non sequitur saying, “That's just the O'Douls talking.” These may not be PTA meeting icebreakers, but who are we to say they have no place in our society, that these things are never appropriate? To dictate how others may communicate or cope?
But that is what it has come to. A people afraid to laugh.
Humor is the salt of our interactions. It helps us to make friends, find common ground and diffuse tense situations. There is hardly a situation that cannot be bettered with a good-natured approach which is why the rapid drop in our joviality should be at least as much a concern as the rise in global temperatures.
Our survival hinges on it. So do your part: tell a joke today. And by all means, lighten up!
Chris Miksanek has written humor for radio, TV, and trade journals and occasionally leads Community Ed humor writing workshops.
All material presented here is Copyright 2007
Last updated: July 20, 2007