Monday, June 12, 2006

What Makes a Joke Funny

I have always wanted to write and get something published. There have been times that I thought the best way to do that would be to submit something to Readers’ Digest. After all, every issue practically screams the words “Earn $300! Just send us your funny stories.”

Some of the stuff they publish is pretty lame. It’s real easy to take the “gee-I-can-do-better-than-that” attitude. And they’ve made it so easy now with online submissions. Just go to their web site, fill out a form and click on “submit”. You don’t even need a stamp.

So a few weeks ago, I submitted what I think is just about the funniest little ditty I know. It goes like this:

  Roses are red,
  Violets are blue.
  Most poems rhyme
  But this one doesn’t.

I thought it’d be a perfect addition to rd’s “Laughter, the Best Medicine”. Or maybe it could be one of those little snippets they put at the bottom of the page when they can’t quite stretch an article to fit.

Apparently, the folks at Pleasantville don’t share my enthusiasm for humor. I never heard a word from them. Oh, well. Their loss.

At least the experience caused me to think about what makes a joke funny. And it gave me an excuse to write about it.

I have been told that to be funny, a joke has to have a sense of exaggerated reality. That’s what makes the comic strip “Family Circus” so funny. Everybody can relate to Bill and Thel as they try to raise their four young children in a house with two dogs and a cat. Haven’t we all pointed to a panel that we thought was particularly funny just because it was so dang true?

That may be one quality of humor, but I heard Bob Hope give another explanation that was equally true. He said that good humor often rests in its timing. The longer you wait before revealing the punch line, the funnier the joke will be.

He gave this example. In the late 1950s, the Cold War with Russia was at full steam. The Russians were sending satellites into space with alarming frequency. Meanwhile nasa was alternately blowing up rockets on the launch pad or ditching wayward spacecraft in the ocean without ever achieving orbit.

In one of his shows, Hope decided to poke honest fun at our misfortunes. Here’s the entire joke:

“Hey, have you heard the latest good news coming out of Cape Canaveral? They just successfully launched a new submarine!”

(Insert rim-shot here.)

The joke is rather dated now, but at the time it was hilarious. In a fraction of a second, the audience was on the edge of their seat only to be duped.

Good news from Cape Canaveral? Hey, we could sure use some good news right about now. Those nasty Ruskies are hammering us in the space race. Who knows what kind of nuclear stuff is floating around above our heads right now? Yes, Bob. Please tell us. What is this great news of which you speak?

They just launched... Great! They launched! They finally got one of those Roman candles in the air! Oh, I feel so much better now. And they launched a ... a what?

Oh, a submarine.

Heh, heh. Very funny.

By successfully delaying the punch line until the very last word  of the joke, Hope successfully turned a national embarrassment into good-natured laughter, teaching me a lesson in humorous timing in the process.

Now, look back my submission to Reader’s Digest. “But this one doesn’t.” I think that’s a great punch line. Delayed as long as possible. Definitely funny. Definitely worthy of inclusion in any fine literature.

Oh, well. I’m not going to quit my day job, waiting for somebody to realize my creative genius.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I lol'ed haha Thought your poem was classic.