Funny You Should Say That
The Library of Congress categorizes all published books which are submitted for registration, according to their contents. When my first book, I May Not Be Totally Perfect, but Parts of Me Are Excellent, was published, I had no idea how they would classify it. I had thought I was writing a new kind of one-line poetry, and was very surprised when the word assigned as the primary classification was one I was not even familiar with. The word was “EPIGRAMS,” and I then had to consult a dictionary to find out exactly what it was that I had already been writing for several years. Since then, of course, I have become quite comfortable with the term — and with its derivative designation of a creator of such works as an “epigrammatist” — a class of which I have claimed to be the world’s only full-time professional.
But often, more than one category is specified, and, in my case, whoever makes these decisions popped me into a second pigeonhole, labeled, “American Wit and Humor.” This was, and still is, quite a puzzle.
I’m not sure about “wit,” but you could hardly call some of my expressions humorous — unless you are afflicted with a very morbid sense of humor. What, for example, is funny about my saying, “It’s very inconvenient to be mortal — you never know when everything may suddenly stop happening”?
Or, how about:
“What causes the mysterious death of everybody?”
And just what funny bone do these tickle?
“How much do I love you? Less than you’ll ever know.”
“My life would be very empty, if I had nothing to regret.”
As for the “American” part, that hardly applies to my work, except in the very narrowest sense, of being first published in the U.S. My humor, such as it is, has always been seen as basically British. In fact, when I took some of my early work to England (where I’d been born and partly raised), people there, when I showed it to them, used to say things like “No doubt it will be popular over here (which it was), but in the States, people will never understand it.”
What is this thing called “humor” anyway? The word’s meaning has changed over the centuries, but nowadays the ultimate test is, does it make you laugh? In case you still think that all cultures laugh at the same things, one classic contradictory example shows the difference between British and German senses of humor. During World War I, Punch magazine published a cartoon showing two British soldiers examining a ruined building. In one wall, there is a huge hole. “What made that?” asks one of the Tommies, and the other replies “Mice!”
Even with the war still on, the publishers of a German humor magazine reprinted this cartoon, with a correct translation. But the editors felt obliged to add a footnote, explaining that “the hole was not, of course, made by mice, but by a German shell.”
Generally speaking, however, laughter is international — perhaps never more so than in the case of so-called “slapstick” humor — which derives its name from a hinged stick which was devised centuries ago to make a loud “slapping” noise, when a performer was struck with it. Even today, audiences all over the world seem to enjoy that same kind of humor, which is based on people behaving violently towards each other, or suffering accidently, e.g., by falling down open manholes, slipping on banana peels, or simply by having something like a wall fall on them. And no words are necessary, which is why some of the old silent movie comedies are still enjoyably funny today.
But to me, the most hilarious humor is the unintentional kind, when somebody says or does something, not trying to be funny at all. Once, at school in England, I myself was the guilty party. We were having a class discussion about theater admission prices, and I said, “I object to the tax on the seats.” There was a pause, and somebody said, “Then why don’t you take them off?” It took some time for me to realize why everybody was laughing.
At that same school, the longest and loudest laughter I can ever remember hearing came when a very prim female art teacher was explaining to our drawing class how clothing follows the contours of the body. When drawing a clothed woman, she said quite innocently, “You’ve got to feel the leg beneath the skirt.”