The little Indian boy shyly approached his father, the Chief of the tribe, to ask him a question.
"Father, I have always wondered how the people of our tribe get their names," the little Indian boy muttered, embarrassed to ask such a simple question of the great Chief, his father, but he just had to know the answer.
The great Chief, however, was more than willing to answer the boy's question explaining to his son that asking questions was one of the important ways to learn the traditions of his tribe.
He explained to the boy, "It's really quite simple my son," the great Chief, the boy's farther said in his most pontificating voice. "When the mother has given birth and the baby has successfully entered our world, the midwife bursts out of the birthing teepee to shout the happy news to all the tribe's people, and names the new baby after the first thing she sees after stepping through the teepee's flap. And so when your brother was born, the first thing the midwife saw as she came out of the teepee was an eagle soaring high in the sky, and so your brother was named Soaring Eagle. When your sister was born, the first thing the midwife saw was a deer running across the meadow, and so your sister was named Running Deer."
The little Indian boy, the Chief's son, thought about the answer his father had given in explanation, then slowly turned with a sad expression on is face, and shuffled away from the great Chief's presence, not hearing his father ask, "But why do you ask, Two Fucking Dogs?"
So all right, if you want to make my favorite joke politically correct so as not to offend anyone, substitute Native American wherever necessary.
For some odd reason this is my favorite joke of all time. It is also the only joke I can remember.
I am not one of those guys who has a repertoire of jokes suitable for any occasion, that can be pulled out of memory for the amusement of all within earshot. I do enjoy the jokes when someone else tells them. I'm an easy audience. I will laugh long and hard at most any reasonably humorous joke, story, or situation. Just don't ask me to repeat the joke at any time.
I will not remember it. Five minutes after hearing the joke, I will have totally erased it from my memory, and will look at you with a confused expression when you ask me to tell that joke to the latecomers to the laugh fest.
"What joke," I'm likely to ask, not just forgetting the joke, but forgetting that there even was joke sometime in my recent past. You are probably thinking, "that guy must have a lousy sense of humor," but you would be wrong.
I actually have a great appreciation for humor in almost all it's iterations. Some kinds of humor ring the bell for me more readily than others. I love irony, one liners, risqué, dry, droll, cerebral, deadpan, farcical, dirty (but not too), self deprecating, gallows, satire, offensive (both mildly and disgustingly), highbrow, humorist's stories, and of course, the ever popular pun. And anytime you can squeeze a limerick into the conversation you will have my full attention. I'm sure there are other forms that I can't call forth right now, but you get the idea. I love to laugh and will respond appropriately to almost any attempt to amuse me.
There are a few forms of humor that I don't find particularly enjoyable for different reasons. Slapstick comedy leaves me cold, probably because it always seems to involve someone hurting someone, or getting hurt himself. Watching some doofus slip on a banana peel and take a header into the cement sidewalk is just not funny to me. I just don't like any kind of violence, whether it is meant to be funny or not. Needless to say, I am not a fan of the Three Stooges. We are better than that. I am better than that.
A close second on the unfunny list is the sophomoric drivel that teenage boys find so enchanting. Any movie that has Will Ferrell, Jim Carry, or Chevy Chase in it is automatically sophomoric. I can't remember ever feeling even the slightest twinge of a smile forming on my face on the rare occasion that I found myself trapped in a situation that forced me to actually watch a movie that had Will Ferrell featured in it. Beware any other movie that is aimed at the sophomores among us.
Ethnic humor can balance on the high wire over the pit which is filled with the skeletons of jokes past that slipped into the not-so-subtle bigotry that we all deny. Ethnic humor is often meant to perpetuate a false stereotype and to demean and insult the butt of the joke. Using phony accents and destroying the English language are typical ways of getting a cheap laugh at the expense of the victim. I often wonder when I've just heard an ethnic joke, whether the Pole or Italian, or Mexican or any other alien who had the misfortune to be in attendance when the shameless lout, who uproariously denigrated their heritage and honor with his vast array of insensitive crap, might have a store of American jokes at hand for rebuttals to the insensitive lout's claptrap. Yes, I've laughed at my share of Polish jokes and dumb blonde jokes and dumb blonde Polish jokes. But I was young and stupid and peer pressure is a powerful thing.
We all have a sense of humor. Some of us have a more refined sense of humor than others, but no matter how sophisticated you may be, or think you are, you will find something to laugh about/at. Humor is all around us just begging to bump our funny bones. What do we laugh at? Our collective sense of humor has evolved over the years to keep up with the audience in attendance. Some humor will change and become more acceptable as time goes by. Someone (probably a humorist) once said that "tragedy plus time equals funny." So it is ok to laugh at "other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?" because after 150 years, the tragedy that the joke is alluding to has dimmed sufficiently that we don't feel guilty laughing at it. However, the similar joke, "other than that, Mrs Kennedy, how did you enjoy the ride?" Is still too close in our memory to be laughable. Someday it, too, will elicit, first a smile, then a quiet snicker while looking around to see how everyone else is reacting, then a full blown guffaw sans guilt. It's time will have arrived to join the party. Those last two jokes could also fall into the offensive category if we are overly sensitive. However, a really good (bad?) offensive joke might go like this: "they say there is safety in numbers. Tell that to 6 million Jews. Or this one is so offensive that I laugh at my own latent stupidity for laughing at it: "99 per cent of women kiss with their eyes closed. That's why it's so hard to identify a rapist." You certainly would think twice, or maybe three times, before telling that one at a feminist convention, or telling it at all. Those two jokes cross several lines of offensive "humor," yet I bet you're snickering quietly while trying not to laugh out loud, and risk be labeled an insensitive, humorless cretin. Funny is funny.
Our collective sense of humor as a society has always developed along with the social mores that naturally develop as a society grows into its skin. We have progressed from the pithy observations of the typical burlesque show that featured everything from dancing dogs and the crudest slapstick skits and stories, to those polished performers, the humorists, like Mark Twain and a generation later, Will Rogers, who were both considered the preeminent humorist of his time. They both told stories that tweaked the character of a our society and made us laugh at ourselves despite the awkward feeling we got when the truth hit too close to home. But the realization that we could laugh at ourselves greased the wheels of the show wagon that made the current humorists, the standup comedians, who are direct descendants of those humorists, celebrities. Burlesque was the circus wagon, and the quips and comments of our storytellers were the confections tossed to the people watching along the parade route.
And while the burlesque performers kept the stories "clean" so as not to offend the sensibilities of the usually conservative audience, their acts contained many double entendres to keep it interesting for the less sensitive ears of the audience. Crude or vulgar language was kept to a minimum, allowing the listeners to use their imaginations to fill in the blanks. I can't help thinking that today's humorists, in the form of the standup comic, are overcompensating for their forebearers' conservatism and so spend more time on stage trying to find new and novel ways of using the "F word" in all its various, (and sometimes funny) iterations to tell their stories and get the cheap laugh instead of digging a little deeper and coming up with a more suitable, and generally more funny substitute. Can you imagine someone like Ogden Nash, with his rather cerebral commentary on the human condition (although he is best known for his light verse and doggerel), using or even knowing the words that are so vulgar and rude and bandied about incessantly by today's stand up comics? His pithy little verse,
But liquor's quicker.
would never have passed into the comic lexicon if he had tried to appeal to the lowest common denominator among us by writing instead,
But sex won't rot your teeth.
That second example might appeal to, and be funnier to the basest among us, than the first example, but in losing the more innocent listener to the clutches of rude thought and language,
he would have lowered the rather high standard of comic commentary that prevailed at the time and perhaps would have changed the course of American humor.
With the advent of television and its incursion into our homes, there came a new form of humor that reached millions of homes every day and consequently had a profound affect on what was laughable. The sitcom and variety show were born, perhaps the offspring of the Greek Goddess Baubo, sounding the death knell for burlesque. Television provided a great stage for the funny stories that were born in burlesque houses. The significant difference between the old and new forms of comedy (burlesque and the TV variety show) was the size of the audience that was reached by them. A burlesque show might draw a few hundred people who bought tickets and made the effort to get to the theater to be entertained. A TV variety show (think Ed Sullivan), would be seen by millions just because it was there at the right time. And the show was free.
The Ed Sullivan show was the closest TV got to the old burlesque shows. While every Ed Sullivan show featured a comedian, it was not strictly a comedy show. That TV genre was the the bailiwick of comedy shows like The Carol Burnett show with its troop of players who gave new meaning to the word "funny." I single out that particular variety show because even now, when I see reruns of episodes, I laugh just as hard at the antics of the cast, and perhaps even laugh harder at times since I can anticipate the "punch line" of the gag, the skit, the joke. The Carol Burnett show also gave exposure to someone I consider one of the funniest "physical" comics of all time, Tim Conway. I start to laugh every time I am reminded of one of his hysterical acts (his skit as a dentist trying to give a patient a shot of Novocaine is a classic) and how even the other cast members couldn't keep a straight face once Tim got on a roll. Without the opportunity to perform that the variety show provided, we might never have heard of Tim Conway and had a the roll-on the floor, stomach ache inducing, tears running down our cheeks, bout of laughter that he gave us and we so enjoyed.
Humor an be found anywhere and everywhere. To some, the more raunchy types of humor can produce outrage at the language used. Censorship by the morality police has tried to solve the problem of inappropriate vocabulary to protect the public against the breech of morality, but censorship is almost always a slippery slope down which the censor must negotiate the slalom course of constitutional mandated free speech and the chauvinistic morality practiced by the censor.
For so many years the TV censors wielded an unyielding heavy fist to beat down any words or acts that might offend anyone who has the most narrow interpretation of humor. George Carlin, the brilliant standup comedian, helped to revolutionize the way we listen to and accept humor. His brilliant word play brought out the absurdity of censorship. He wielded his interpretation of words like a sword ready to do battle with the narrow minded among us. His most famous knock down of the absurdity of censorship was his list of the seven words that we could never say on TV. (For informational purposes only, those seven words are "shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits) He was arrested in Milwaukee after he did his standup act which included those seven words (find it on YouTube). That arrest was probably the greatest boost to his career, bringing with it the publicity that brought that list to the wider public's attention. As a result of Carlin's crusade, we no longer think twice about the words used by comedians during their acts. They now shout the infamous seven, and many others of the same ilk, with impunity, knowing that their audience will react because the joke they tell is funny, and damn the vocabulary.
With the bombardment of entertainment available today, the only censorship possible is self-censorship. You know that doesn't work when you hear those raunchy jokes repeated on the playground during 4th grade recess. Kids today can't avoid hearing, and learning, a vocabulary that, when we were growing up, would have shocked a longshoreman. But remember that language is ever evolving, and what was shocking to us is commonplace today and what is shocking today will be become part of common usage by the weekend, such is the power of communication in this digital age.
Another classic example of words being used to shock and get a laugh at the same time is the bit on Saturday Night Live that featured the incomparable Richard Pryor being interviewed by Chevy Chase for a job. You have to see it to appreciate how words can escalate a situation from
the benign to a murderous rage and still be funny. Satirizing racism is a tough assignment, but such was Pryor's comedic genius that we ended up laughing at ourselves while being skewered and shamed all the while.
There are so many comics out there today that everyone can have a favorite of their own, depending on the type of spoken humor that moves them to happy tears. With no subject too outrageous, no words taboo, there is something for everyone to laugh at. I think the acceptance of women into the world of standup comedy has opened a whole new map of the humor landscape. When you hear the female comedian spouting the “f” word with the impunity of a marine drill sergeant , you know that feminism has made long leap forward. And for the better I might add. Nowadays it doesn’t matter who is making you laugh, as long as you keep on laughing. Believe me, I would rather laugh at the most crude, insensitive, raunchy, off-color, racial claptrap than have my entertainment censored by some backward thinking prude, who thinks he knows what is best for me. Like George Carlin, I would prefer to spend the night in jail for uttering a naughty word than cowtow to the devil that is censorship.
So keep laughing. You may have to get your fresh jokes and humorous material from someone else if , like me, you can’t remember a joke from one minute to the next. If all you remember is the good feeling you had a few minutes ago because you laughed at something someone said or did or read, that is enough to keep your sense of humor alive and well. Remember, you can’t be sad and laugh at the same time; you can’t be mean and laugh at the same time; you can’t commit acts of violence while you are laughing, and you can’t be someone you aren’t when you laugh at yourself.