I don’t laugh at jokes. Not usually. Hence my enduring non-presence at comedy clubs the nation over. I don’t dislike actual comedians deliberately doing comedy — lord knows I enjoy ‘em on podcasts — but the expectations their contexts set up make me horrifically tense and squirrely. In the presence of a performing stand-up comic, my entire body petrifies into a semi-smiley rictus as I laboriously, mechanically grunt out “laughs,” even if I actually find the comedian funny. Despite often enjoying great yuks at authors’ readings or more “storytelling”-centric events (such as a RISK! taping or a Mike Daisey monologue, although the latter remains theoretical since you need, like, San Francisco money to see a Mike Daisey monologue), I just can’t laugh in situations which, explicitly or implicitly, tell me I’m about to laugh.
How to put into words what does make me... not just laugh, but, in net parlance, ROFL IRL? Sometimes I get nailed not by jokes, per se, but “humor” in a broader, more tonal sense. David Sedaris’ turns of phrase score a high hit-to-miss ratio here, but I don’t know that I can trot one out meaningfully — though I’ve got more than a few memorized — without propping up more context than you’re going to want to read. (For fellow Sedarites: I think a lot about the way he describes Dupont Charles’ “hopeless State of the Union address delivered from an overturned bucket.”) That’s the more obvious type of thing I laugh at. As for the less obvious type of thing I laugh at, perhaps I can best explain by examples — specifically, by the two funniest things I’ve read this year.
One of the funniest things I’ve read this year came in the form of a tweet from Karl Haley, a.k.a Asymmetricon:
After leaving Andersen's Pea Soup this morning, my mom expressed what we've all felt for the last 40 years: "The food is shit."
God, just picture it: a guy and his mom emerge from Andersen’s Pea Soup — in the morning, and somehow picturing it in the still-getting-light haze of the early A.M. makes it better — then the mom suddenly turns and says only, “The food is shit.” And it bursts the floodgates on four decades of society’s pent-up frustration with Andersen’s Pea Soup. Andersen’s Pea Soup. For a couple weeks now, I’ve been cracking myself up on the daily with nothing more than a muttered “the food is shit.” I actually lobbied Karl to stop locking his tweets — to actively endanger his privacy — so that I could retweet this one.
I’ve also kept the phrase “killed in a bar when he was only three” in high comedionanistic rotation. Why? Because of one particular response to my staggeringly popular Ask MetaFilter thread about things we’ve misunderstood all along:
Since he was "killed in a bar when he was only three," I had no idea why there was a whole show about an adult Davy Crockett. Why was a three-year-old in a bar, anyway?
That question — what could a three-year-old have been doing in a bar? — gets right at what I find so funny about bits like these: they raise so many unanswered (or unanswerable) questions. Oh YHWH I’m chuckling too hard to even type this. How could Davy Crockett have become such a beloved character in American legend if all he did was die? At three? In a bar? Why would the modern television industry go so far as to base an entire long-running series around a dead toddler? Did they stage the storyline in some alternate universe of the Davy Crockett mythos where he... just doesn’t die in that bar at three, and then goes on to have a rousing, rough-and-tumble frontier life? Above all, why would they want to do that?
(A simple but yet infinitely complex “Why?” ends up being the main question about everything I find hilarious.)
Adam Cadre posted a resonant example of this sort of “humor” — that, at least to my mind, works much better than the genuinely crafted stuff — a few years back:
At the Berkeley Bowl I overheard a mother tell her little daughter that she could get a seaweed snack. The daughter asked, "Can I get two?" and the mother said, no, just one. The little girl replied, sadly, "But I love dem." I don't think a day has gone by since that I have not ended up using that phrase in one context or another. It's all in the delivery.
Soon, “The food is shit,” “Killed in a bar at the age of three,” and “But I love dem” will all settle into place in my verbal repertoire, to be dispensed in every possible situation despite their lack of obvious jokiness and difficulty to explain on the internet. I’ve also been getting a lot of mileage lately out of Vera-Ellen’s lament from On the Town that she’s turned out to be nothing more than a “cooch dancer,” but that one’s all too easily explained.