(Mike Thompson, Detroit Free Press)

A few months ago there was a lot of discussion about a survey of what people around the world think is funny. If I remember correctly, Americans laugh at situations that make people look foolish, Canadians laugh at satire and self-deprecating humour, the British laugh at irony and clever wordplay, and the French (or was it the Germans?) laugh at silly, non-sequitur humour.

Since the cancellation of Aaron Sorken’s brilliant and charming Sports Night, I’ve stopped watching ‘situation comedies’. The reason? They’re not funny. They’re mean-spirited, condescending, and maliciously derogatory about others. Maybe it’s my Canadian breeding, but I don’t find insulting other people amusing. Making a fool of oneself, the way Canadians like Mike Myers, Jim Carrey, Michael J. Fox, Martin Short etc. do, can be funny.

I’ve scoured the Internet for intelligence on the qualities that make writing humorous, and concluded that there isn’t much consensus, except for the element of surprise. To be funny, something needs to be unexpected.

Example: Here is a joke that I think is funny.

After Quasimodo’s death, the bishop of the Cathedral of Notre Dame sent word through the streets of Paris that a new bell ringer was needed. The bishop decided that he would conduct the interviews personally and went up into the belfry to begin the screening process. After observing several applicants demonstrate their skills, he had decided to call it a day.

Just then, an armless man approached him and announced that he was there to apply for the bell ringer’s job. The bishop was incredulous.

“You have no arms!”

“No matter,” said the man. “Observe!” And he began striking the bells with his face, producing a beautiful melody on the carillon.

The bishop listened in astonishment; convinced he had finally found a replacement for Quasimodo. But suddenly, rushing forward to strike a bell, the armless man tripped and plunged headlong out of the belfry window to his death in the street below.

The stunned bishop rushed to his side. When he reached the street, a crowd had gathered around the fallen figure, drawn by the beautiful music they had heard only moments before. As they silently parted to let the bishop through, one of them asked,

“Bishop, who was this man?”

“I don’t know his name,” the bishop sadly replied, “but his face rings a bell.”

The following day, despite the sadness that weighed heavily on his heart due to the unfortunate death of the armless campanologist, the bishop continued his interviews for the bell ringer of Notre Dame. The first man to approach him said,

“Your Excellency, I am the brother of the poor armless wretch that fell to his death from this very belfry yesterday. I pray that you honour his life by allowing me to replace him in this duty.”

The bishop agreed to give the man an audition, and, as the armless man’s brother stooped to pick up a mallet to strike the first bell, he groaned, clutched at his chest, twirled around, and died on the spot.

Two monks, hearing the bishop’s cries of grief at this second tragedy, rushed up the stairs to his side.

“What has happened? Who is this man?” the first monk asked breathlessly.

“I don’t know his name,” sighed the distraught bishop, but……….. he’s a dead ringer for his brother.”

OK, you’re not laughing. How about this, from Homes and Other Black Holes by the inimitable Dave Barry, who thinks exploding toilets are funny:

The most important factor to consider in selecting a real estate broker is an intangible quality called ‘profesisonalism’ by which I mean ‘car size’. You want to select the broker with the largest possible car, because you’re going to spend far more time in this car than in whatever home you ultimately buy.

Next you should tell your broker what your Price Range is, so he or she can laugh until his or her official company blazer is soaked with drool. What your broker finds amusing, of course, is that there is virtually nothing, outside of the Third World in your Price Range. I don’t care if your Price Range is a hillion jillion dollars, there will be nothing available in it. This is a fundamental principle of real estate.

At first you will probably insist on looking at something in your Price Range anyway, which will result in the following comical dialogue:

YOU: This is it? They’re asking $89,500 for a refrigerator carton?
BROKER: Yes, but I think they’ll take $85,000.

The Washington Post Magazine recently sent Below the Beltway humorist Gene Weingarten to Paris to write about the cultural differences that have led to tensions between the US and France. His column came out yesterday, and it’s here. It’s long but give it time — it’s well worth the effort, and the best is at the end, after the set-up.

I analyzed this for some clues to good humour writing, since heaven knows this blog could use some. Weingarten does use stories to engage the reader, which is supposedly an important humour technique. He uses exaggeration, ironic understatement, clever wordplay (“Americans are ‘consumers.’ By and large, we buy, and are large.”), and witty imagery (“the enormous plastic Golden Arches ô dangle above it on a chain from the roof, like a big cartoon tushie”). Americans and French ideosyncracies are entertained with equal balance, but there is room for touching description (the women leaving gifts at Sartre’s grave) and underlying messages and lessons (“Though predominantly Roman Catholic, the French demand secularism in government and find Bush’s very public trumpeting of his Christian faith to be naked sanctimony.”) even though they require temporary departure from humour.

I could imagine Weingarten slaving over this article for days on end (he was on hiatus from his weekly column for three weeks writing it), painstakingly crafting every phrase, tweaking every sentence to perfect comic effect. But of course he did not. This afternoon, live, he engaged in online banter with readers of yesterday’s column. The transcript of the chat is here, and damned if it isn’t just as funny as the column. And it’s informative. And it is provocative. How can anyone be so gifted to be able to type this out verbatim, unrehearsed, in response to a question about political awareness:

Virtually all the French people I dealt with, from handymen to news dealers to 24-year-old students in the street, were amazingly well informed about the world. Whereas in the United States polls suggest more than half the people think Saddam Hussein launched 9/11. Interestingly, the French seem to understand this about Americans, and LIKE us for it. It explains how we can be nice, decent people and at the same time support Bush: We just don’t understand!

Yes, that’s arrogance. But it’s kind of sweet arrogance.

I’m humbled. I guess that’s why I’m a Chief Knowledge Officer and not a humour writer, or, in fact, a writer of any kind, by profession. So I leave the last word to Weingarten, who in another off-the-cuff response to a chat question is able to be at once funny, educational and endearing. We should all be so lucky as to have this talent:

I would say virtually every story has some mistake in it. I am not sure it is a mistake, exactly, but as soon as my wife read it in the magazine, she pointed to the photo of Sophie Martins, whom I had described as wearing a sleeveless top, and she said, “You idiot. That’s a tank top.”

I said, “But it’s sleeveless, isn’t it?” And she looked at me like I was hopeless.

It’s a gender thing, I guess, like a woman saying the Yankees have three “points.”

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7 Responses to WRITING FUNNY

  1. mrG says:

    ok, this is it, my one and only economist joke, and I’ve been told it may be funny:There’s three campers, a chemist, a physicist and an economist, and to make a long story short, they get caught in a storm and lose everything, leaving them stranded on the mountain side with only a can of beans … and no opener.Getting hungry, they begin to brainstorm. The chemist proposes thermal equalibrium as a means to the dinner: Place the can in the fire, eventually the sauce will turn to vapour and the vapour pressure inside will exceed the structural bonds of the can alloy allowing beans to flow freely to the lower pressure of the surrounding area.No good says his companions. A hot ruptured razor-sharp can of scalding beans in all directions? No thanks.The physicist proposes the solution may be found in General Relativity. Given a suitably massive rock held to a potential energy on the other side of the can from a gravity well, releasing the rock would build sufficient kinetic energy in the slide to the lower energy potential to overcome the molecular field strengths of the can.No good says his companions. Flat can with beans pressed firmly into the dirt.So the economist ponders, and ponders and ponders. Then he speaks.”Suppose the beans were out of the can …”

  2. David Jones says:

    I’ve never liked the fact that Dave Barry – from Florida? – is syndicated into Canada. Good heavens! We invented North American comedy and we can’t find a Canadian for our dailies?Moi – I was weaned on Gerard Hoffnung – and in my opinion the bricklayer sketch is the funniest piece of work ever composed, and told.

  3. Rob Paterson says:

    Yes David that wonderful pause after the bricklayer let’s go of the rope and you know that the bricks are coming.What is it about “getting” it early in jokes. What I mean is that we all know that WilE Coyote is doomed the moment the new thing from Acme arrives?

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Gary: Here’s my favourite economist joke:A man walking along a road in the countryside comes across a shepherd and a huge flock of sheep. He tells the shepherd, “I will bet you $100 against one of your sheep that I can tell you the exact number in this flock.” The shepherd thinks it over; it’s a big flock so he takes the bet. “973,” says the man. The shepherd is astonished, because that is exactly right. He says “OK, I’m a man of my word, take an animal.” The man picks one up and begins to walk away.”Wait,” cries the shepherd, “Let me have a chance to get even. Double or nothing that I can guess your exact occupation.” The man says sure. “You are an economist” says the shepherd. “Amazing!” responds the man, “You are exactly right! But tell me, how did you deduce that?””Well,” says the shepherd, “put down my dog and I will tell you.”

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    David: Dave Barry’s humour is so ‘Canadian’ in style I think of him as an honorary Canadian. The TV show ‘Dave’s World’ a few years back was also remarkably Canadian in style (silly, gentle) and was actually a bigger hit here than in the US. Besides anyone living in Florida is probably surrounded by Canadians anyway, so maybe the sense of humour rubbed off. I confess I’m not familiar with Huffnung (just Googled him to make sure), though I’m old enough to be. And the answer to Rob’s question is, in the words of Carly Simon: “Anticipation..”

  6. David Jones says:

    Hmmmm. Guess I did’t make the nature of my outrage clear, and that in itself it outrageous.I think Canadian papers should be able to carry what they want – but my chagrin was that there doesn’t seem to be a syndicated Canadian humnour columnist…..and that may be because Barry has the market covered. Hmmm again. Maybe we need Canadian newspaper humor content guidelines. You know, something like 60% of the jokes must be written by Canadians, delivered by Canadians or deal with clearly identifyable Canadian subjects. CRTC – are you listening? (Of couse we’re listening David!)

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    David: We have a great Canadian syndicated humour columnist. Problem is, no one has ever heard of him. His books (especially The Dog Rules) are hilarious (and even a bit Dave Barry-like). His name is William Thomas. More about him (out of date, though) here. If you can find his weekly column, All The World’s A Circus anywhere (it’s supposedly in 45 papers) please let me know. He’s our guy.

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