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“God is a comedian, performing for an audience that is too afraid to laugh.”— Nietzsche

I used to wonder if God had a sense of humor. As I get older, I am more and more convinced. When my daughter Indiana was little, I was often on pins and needles, waking at any small noise coming from her room.

It was a full decade back now. One night, I vaulted out of bed at 4 in the morning to her cries and don’t remember my feet actually touching the ground. When I got to her bedside, her eyes were open. She was sucking her thumb. With her other hand, she was holding her belly button, the patented Indiana Boston form of self-comfort.

Managing to present a strong and capable father, I swallowed pints of adrenaline and calmly asked: “Everything OK, Peanut? I heard you calling.”

In the dim light, Indiana stared at the ceiling, pulled out her thumb and announced: “I’ve got a joke for you, Dad.”

Expertly, I let all the air escape so I wouldn’t faint from the rush.

Four in the morning.

A joke.

“Well. I’m here. Might as well hear it.”

I’m not exactly sure of the punchline, but it was something along the lines of “the faucet doesn’t work...”

I blinked.

She blinked.

“It’s not really a very good joke, is it, Dad?”

I pursed my lips, trying to hide my smile and nodded.

“Maybe more of an anecdote,” I said.

And there you have it. The Joke. It wasn’t about faucets. It was about a panicked father who is a paid humorist vaulting out of bed to hear a bad joke. From a 3-year-old. It exists better in time and at the moment than on paper.

 

“What do I think of Western Civilization?

I think it would be a very good idea.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

 

Why do we laugh? Well. Duh. Because something strikes us as funny and humor certainly is, like your uncle, relative.

On an episode of “The Simpsons” years ago the Germans bought the nuclear power plant from Mr. Smithers. They wanted to acculturate themselves into America and learn the subtleties.

One German executive walked up to some lab techs and asked, with thick-accented earnest: “That man weighs over 400 pounds and yet, why do you call him ‘Tiny?’”

A world away, the Afghans have a word for a man who won’t beat his wife and no. It’s not “Democrat.” In the still primitive high country, people laugh at kind-hearted acts but not much else.

Then the French like Jerry Lewis.

Go figure.

In “Only Joking,” comedian Jimmy Carr and Lucy Greeves have written a must-have book that is both hilarious and scholarly, beginning with how laughter, jokes and humor evolved in the human species.

 

“It may be a small world, but still,

I wouldn’t want to paint it.”

— Steven Wright

 

Way back when, when most of us weighed a buck-ten, and most of that was yellow teeth and mangy hair, life was brutal.

Think about a daily existence where you didn’t start the day by hitting the snooze button but were jolted from your sleep by a saber-tooth tiger gumming your Uncle Norman as he screams in protest. Breakfast was an interesting event because you ate it or it ate you. On those bad days, it was both.

Ancient man placed sentries on duty to watch for predators the size of 1958 Buick Roadmasters.

Hence the birth of humor.

You have some stimulus of danger — a growl, a smell, a scream. Everyone back then being the early version of the homeless, there were no cars to run to, no 911 to dial. Adrenaline by the quart pumped into us, getting us ready to fight or, usually, flee.

If we did neither, there was all this pent-up emotion. It had to go somewhere.

 

“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.

And monkeys do too — if they have a gun.”

— Eddie Izzard

 

And that was where something like “Well har-dee-har-har” may have been born.

A sound like a robust laugh may have been the “all-clear” sign.

As man evolved into an even more social beast, so did laughter. Possibly on some laser point in time, there was the first physical comedy. Maybe it was something as simple as a caveman having his bear hide robes catch on fire.

Think about it.

You have the stimulus: Ug screaming in panic. Hearing the scream, the tribe is on DefCon 1 Alert. Hearts race. Breaths are held. There is that instant kick-in to identify the threat.

But there is no threat.

Only Ug comically dancing around, screaming and batting at the flames. The laughter that follows is the release — the all-clear sign that there is no danger.

The birth of the re-run may have come the next morning as the clan reenacted Ug’s high-stepping pyrotechnics.

It works for Jim Carey.

The book, “Only Joking,” touches lightly on these interesting theories. Despite Homer Simpson’s Germans, everyone — well, most everyone — is born with a laugh mechanism.

The authors offer the obligatory kudos to the benefits of laughter and back it up with research. Some interesting facts:

 

• Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran worked with brain-damaged patients. Some with damage to their insular cortex laugh hysterically when pricked by a pin, indicating that the nerve pathways amongst fear, laughter and pain are close, if not linked. Which reminds me of a masochistic friend of mine who was in an abusive relationship. I asked her why she stayed with the sadist. She shrugged and said: “Don’t know. Beats me.”

• Gorillas and chimps laugh when tickled. Of course, they probably never heard this one: “A guy was barbecuing a chicken on an old-fashioned backyard rotisserie when a hippie walked up to him, tapped him on the shoulder and said: ‘Don’t mean to bum you out, man. But your music’s stopped and your monkey’s on fire.’” Or: “What do you get when you put a lab monkey in a blender? (pause, two, three, kick) Rhesus pieces...”

• A really good laugh is equal to 15 minutes of strenuous aerobic exercise and can lengthen a person’s lifespan. All kidding aside, for a second, you might want to pass this along to your dour friends. A University of Maryland study found that exactly 40 percent of their group tested who are “less likely to see the funnier side of life” are more likely to suffer from heart disease. As if anyone “enjoys” heart disease.

• Norman Cousins was the poster boy of laughter being the best medicine. In the 1960s, Carr and Greeves remind us that it was Cousins who suffered a massive heart attack then “cured” himself by watching a steady diet of comedies, including the Marx Brothers. (“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” — Groucho Marx) Refusing conventional treatment, he apparently cured his debilitating stroke and died peacefully in his sleep at the age of 75. Of course, Carr & Greeves don’t share that Cousins was 74-7/8ths when he had the heart attack. (Just kidding.)

 

“Why do kamikaze pilots wear helmets?

Smacks of indecision to me.”

— Sean Meo

 

Carr is a noted comedian and Greeves an accomplished author. They are best friends and went to Cambridge together. Their literary marriage is part technical, part joke book (and a tremendously funny one at that).

They theorize that jokes evolved because, as grown-ups, it was no longer socially acceptable to tickle others — certainly in public.

The authors note that comedians have probably been around as long as people and that the clown is one of Carl Jung’s psychological archetypes (“The central symbols of our collective conscience,” i.e., “symbols to our species identity.”)

The more you read, the more you not just laugh, but shake  your head in unasked-for enlightenment. For example, in tracing the universality of these humor archetypes, Carr & Greeves look at an actual Indian tribe called the Winnebagos. Many primitive societies have these trickster gods, but this particular one has a detachable phallus which he carries about in a box. The authors point out, in good English dry understatement:

“One can only speculate why, when casting around for a brand name for their motor homes, the founders of Winnebago Industries found their eyes caught by a word that implies “a box with a (you-know-what) in it.”

Beyond sex, humor deals with death — and murder.

 

“I went out on a first date, but I don’t think

I’ll be seeing her again.

She got mad when I didn’t open the car door.

I just swam to the surface.”

— Emo Phillips

 

Again, ancient, primitive roots are to blame. The Taliban admonishing a man for not beating his wife may not be that far from a campfire scene of 100,000 years ago.

And the writers even manage to dissect that — the ancient taboo of making jokes about women (One of my favorites comes from Carr himself: “My girlfriend says there’s never an excuse to raise your hand to a woman. What if you’ve got a question?”) and why it makes both genders laugh. They also not-so-carefully wade into the most frigid of politically correct waters: the ethnic joke.

 

“Ever wonder why so many of the

great violinists of the last century

were Jewish, but so few great pianists?

Well. You try escaping with

a piano under your arm.”

— Anonymous

 

Fascinating, that we have a device within us connected to so much violence and suffering — one a bottomless, subterranean level — that can make us feel so good.

The authors share what they call “the saddest story about comedy ever told.” It is quite revealing:

“A man comes into a doctor’s office in Hamburg in the 1950s. He’s in miserable shape. ‘Doctor, I just don’t think I can carry on. Life has no meaning for me. Everywhere I look I see misery and sadness.’ The psychiatrist replies: ‘What you need to do is lighten your heart. Learn to laugh. I know just the thing. The greatest clown in Europe is performing in Hamburg this week with his circus. His name is Grock. Seem him and you’ll be sure to forget your troubles.’ The man just shakes his head. ‘Doctor,’ he replies. ‘I’m Grock.’”

 

“I’ve been smoking for 30 years now

and there’s nothing wrong with my lung.”

— Freddie Starr

 

Isn’t that often such a terrible irony? So many of those who make us laugh come from horrific backgrounds. John Belushi died young, as did Lenny Bruce. As did Robin Williams. On and on. I picked on Jerry Lewis, but the gifted actor had a trenchant observation: “the premise of all comedy is the man in trouble.” But for every Bruce, Belushi & Williams...

 

“I went to my dentist.

He said, “Say, ‘aaah.’

I said, ‘Why?’

He said, ‘My dog just died.’”

— Harry Hill

 

there’s a Bob Hope and George Burns, who lived a combined age of something like 700.

Simply, “Only Joking” is compelling. This is a wonderful book that belongs in every smart person’s library and one you’ll want to read several times. If you suffer from Short Attention Span Syndrome, buy it just for the joke at the bottom of every page.

“O.J.” is nearly impossible to put down. It is one of those treasured volumes where you get lost in it, look up at the clock, see it’s 2 in the morning (speaking of numbers, from Steven Wright: “In Vegas, I got into a long argument with a man at the roulette wheel over what I considered to be an odd number.”) curse because you have to get up in a few hours, take a deep breath and read some more because you can’t put the Carr/Greeves gift down.

That’s what happened to me.

In the middle of the night — and maybe the hour in part was to blame — but I can’t stop laughing.

Humor is also about timing.

I leave you with an observation from comedian Yakov Smirnoff:

“We have a saying in Russia.

Women are like buses. That’s it.”

 

(SCV author John Boston also writes The Time Ranger & SCV History for your SCV Beacon. He’s has earned more than 100 major awards for writing, including being named, several times, America’s best humor, and, best serious columnist. Don’t forget to check out his national humor, entertainment & swashbuckling commentary website, America’s Humorist — thejohnbostonchronicles.com.)

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