On the Road
January 18, 2013 § 4 Comments
Continuing our discussion on the differences between spontaneous wit and prepared jokes, this week I want to explore the different mindsets they are connected with. I got at this a bit in our last post on the subject, “Who’s lines are these, anyway?“, which concluded:
If a prepared joke is like a speech, then wit is like a conversation. Wit’s natural habitat, in fact, seems to be the conversation, and those that stand out as witty are the sorts of people who are good enough listeners to incorporate what others have said into a fresh comment, the ultimate example being that serendipitous remark that brings a conversation “full-circle” and makes everyone involved feel included—and lucky to have been.
With it’s openness to—and hunger for—new material, wit is the liberal side of the dichotomy. Wit requires that sort of searching faith that is ready to go wherever the truth leads and eager to incorporate whatever it finds into it’s conception of the truth. Ultimately, nothing is off limits to wit; to be witty is to be in a state of creativity—to be “submissive to everything, open, listening” as Kerouac asserts in his “Belief and Technique for Modern Prose“.
This goes not only for the witty, but their audience as well; to be truly receptive to wit, you have to let go of your expectations about what is funny and your biases about what isn’t so you’ll be ready to follow whatever fresh connections are being made. Since wit is essentially conversational, this is usually a given anyhow, as one flips back and forth between joker and audience, staying receptive the whole time. Similarly, if you’re engaged in a battle of wits, you have to be ready to laugh at yourself then redouble that laughter at your opponent—not cross your arms, pout, and decry, “Untrue! No fair!”
Conversely, prepared jokes represent the conservative impulse, a codification of what we think is funny to protect and propagate for future benefit. At its worst, we can see the the dangers inherent in our conservative impulses playing out in racist, sexist, and homophobic humor, as in-groups spread jokes to reinforce their position of prestige and power. Mostly, though, I feel it is fruitful to preserve our jokes; they sustain us in times when our wits are failing and serve as templates for its expression when it is properly firing.
This relationship between the two sides has become clearer to me since trying to compose my own prepared jokes for our jokealongs. I usually start by cataloging as many existing jokes on the subject as I can in order to open myself up to as many possible directions. I’ll usually come up with a few dead ends that night, sleep on it, and think about it at work the next day. When the joke finally comes from out of nowhere, it always hits me with the force of wit; if it doesn’t at least make me chuckle to myself, it isn’t the joke. But once I have it, I have to find a way to communicate that chuckle to someone else, and following a common joke formula often feels like not just the easiest and safest means of expression, but the most effective. We conserve our joke formulas because we know they work, and we use them over and over again because we know our audience will know how they work, allowing more sophistication in our expression as we play to and off of these expectations. As a result, the process of writing a joke often involves trying to shoehorn that moment of mind-expanding insight into a knock-knock script. Whenever I read my jokealong jokes again after posting them, that sense of joyous revelation is almost completely missing, but I have to believe there is more of it communicated to the reader than if I had just kept my laughter to myself.
It is fun and illustrative to think about this process in reverse. Take, for instance, one of our culture’s most ubiquitous and enduring jokes:
Q: Why did the chicken cross the road?
A: To get to the other side.
Ever since I was a child, I thought this joke was banal, but now that I’ve tried to imagine its composition, I’m starting to appreciate it for the masterpiece it is. I mean, who wrote this one? Who laughed at it and then passed it on? In my imagination, there is a bong in a dorm room—but since print references to the joke apparently date back to 1847, I’m probably wrong. I suppose all that ultimately matters is someone spat it out once, and it seemed to so perfectly capture the irreverent uselessness of our wit that it has been passed on ever since. I recognize now that even when I was adamant it wasn’t funny, it was communicating an important lesson about what was funny to me and every other kid who has ever heard it: humor searches without aim, crossing boundaries just because it can.
We obviously need both sides of humor just as our larger culture needs both conservative and liberal impulses: we need wit to find and generate more humor, and jokes to preserve the humor we have found so that we can further build upon it—and there is much to be gained by crossing back and forth, getting from one side to the other.