My First Joke

When did you first hear, and “get,” a joke, and what was it?  Having a sense of humor in the modern world is so essential, and understanding what jokes are, and what “funny” means, is a crucial component of developing that important part of human character — but for many of us remembering how you learned about jokes and getting a laugh out of them is something that is lost in the mists of time.

img_5819Humor seems to be an innate characteristic of human beings.  Little kids laugh at lots of things, like tumbling puppies, and pratfalls, and playing peek-a-boo, and the sheer joy of being alive, but verbal humor is a pretty big step up from visual humor.  It’s the difference between watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon and laughing because Bugs has tied the unwitting Elmer Fudd’s shotgun into a bow and when Elmer tries to fire it the shotgun blows up in his face, and later understanding and smiling at the humor in Bugs’ wisecracks.

I’m pretty sure that the first joke I ever heard was of the “knock-knock” variety.  That’s not surprising when you think about it, because “knock-knock” jokes are about as simple as a joke can get, with their standard set-up and uniform cadence and silly plays on words.  They are the kindergarten level of humor, where you get to play with clay, and color things, and take a nap after drinking a juice box — but kindergarten is still a crucial first step on the educational ladder.  And I’m pretty sure that I remember what the joke was:

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Dwayne.

Dwayne who?

Dwayne the bathtub, I’m dwowning!

I’m also confident that whoever told me the joke — maybe it was UJ, maybe it was an older neighborhood kid, maybe it was an older relative — patiently explained the joke to me so I would understand, and then asked:  “Get it?”  And, after thinking about it, I realized that I did “get” it.  It wasn’t fall-down funny or anything, but it was clever in its own elementary way, and saying the word “dwowning” sounded pretty funny, too.  And I’m pretty sure that I tried that joke out on some other little kid, because learning how to tell a joke is almost as important as “getting” a joke in the first place.

Thanks to that “knock-knock,” a doorway opened, and I went through to be introduced to a world of one-liner jokes about screwing in lightbulbs and horses walking into bars and men getting no respect, and observational humor and satire and farce and anecdotal humor and situational comedy and everything else that makes us chuckle.  That little joke ended up meaning a lot.

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52 And Grouchy

Social scientists seem to conduct more provocative (yet still ultimately useless) studies in Great Britain than in the United States.  The latest example is research that concludes that people pretty much lose their sense of humor at age 52, become grumpy, and laugh less and less.  By the time they are in their 60s, most Brits apparently can barely manage a mild chortle once in a while, even when viewing the subtle comedic offerings of Benny Hill.  And with the grey, rainy weather that is characteristic of that Sceptred Isle, who can blame them?

As a 53-year-old American, I like to think I still have a pretty good sense of humor and ability to laugh.  In fact, I don’t think certain baseline characteristics of my sense of humor have changed much since I was a kid.  I’ll always laugh at  physical comedy and sophomoric stuff like the Three Stooges.  I’ve just built on that solid foundation of pie-in-the-face, shot-to-the-groin yucks to incorporate an appreciation of irony, sarcasm, and more highbrow comedic stylings.

I don’t have any doubt that laughter makes you feel better and more youthful in outlook.  My grandmother loved to laugh — at herself and others — and she was a delight to be around.  Mom will still laugh hard at, say, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.  The key, I think, is to reserve some time to do those things that make you chuckle.  Maybe it’s time to make a date with a DVD of Animal House?