Tell me if you think this is funny:
In 1988, the vice presidential candidates for the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, were Senator Dan Quayle and Senator Lloyd Bentsen. They had a famously contentious debate which is best remembered for Senator Bentsen's zinger, "Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy."
That same year, heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson, then in his salad days, got into an altercation with another boxer . . . in the street. The other guy, Mitch Green, had actually gone a respectable 10 rounds in an official fight with Tyson a couple of years earlier. They encountered each other outside of a clothing store in Harlem, and the fistfight ensued.
Soon after that, David Letterman, then still on the comedy program he founded, Late Night, said (and I'll have to quote from more than two-decade-old memory here): "Boy, the election is really heating up. Dan Quayle and Lloyd Bentsen got into a fistfight outside a clothing store in Harlem."
The audience fell apart laughing. Watching at home, I did too.
So, tell me, did you find that funny?
Eh, probably not. I had to set up the entire world for you beforehand. Letterman's joke was what is called a "topical reference." And once the topic was no longer current, there went the humor.
Comedy is difficult to do well. That's why the top comics in the world command huge salaries.
The perishability of topical humor is one more way we can observe the weirdness of humor.
Why do we hominids laugh at anything?
Isaac Asimov's 1956 science fiction story Jokester posited that humor was an experiment by a godlike alien intelligence. Once the story's main character has discovered that truth, humor vanishes from the human race. To be replaced (ominously) by something else.
(By the way, I was hoping that I would be performing an intellectual service to my readers by bringing this Asimov story back from obscurity. But then I discovered that references to it are all over the internet! The story hit a chord among all who ever read it, apparently. R.I.P., Dr. A. Your ideas live forever.)
The defunnystration of topical humor gives us a clue as to why something was funny in the first place.
The David Letterman joke was funny because it juxtaposed two politicians trading television-friendly one-liners from behind separate podiums with two professional boxers getting into a viscious tussle without a referee or any rules of any kind.
It stopped being funny because the two incidents being juxtaposed stopped being juxtaposable. As the Mike Tyson/Mitch Green street fight faded from memory, and as Dan Quayle became a memorably inept vice president, it was no longer possible to put the two incidents together without the exhaustive, two paragraph explanation I provided at the start of this blog.
We can visualize humor as a meshing of two separate gears. In order to work, the gears must be close enough to each other for their teeth to touch.
So, for the person who desires to create comedy that will live on forever, the thing to do is create a joke whose separate pieces will never move far enough away from each other to stop meshing.
Is that even possible? (If anyone has an example of a certain joke which has consistently been considered funny for several centuries, I would love to hear it in the comments section below.)
Well, consider it from another angle; does humorlessness increase permanency?
Millions of people consider the Christian Holy Bible to be an enduring, eternal document. And, as the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead famously said, "The total absence of humour from the Bible is one of the most singular things in all literature."
(How tough is it to be funny? Consider that my best attempt in this post was a Christ-awful pun on "The Defenestration of Prague.")
(If you have evidence of any factual inaccuracies in this article, please post that information in the comments section. I will be happy to make any needed corrections.)