This is the collected version of a series of posts I did on the dichotomy between spontaneous wit and prepared humor over the last few months of 2012 and the first few of 2013. I hope to use this as the basis for an essay in a book on humor someday, so please do let me know what you think about my conclusions.
I’ve had difficulties this past week figuring out how to best begin this series of posts I have planned on the dichotomy between composed jokes and spontaneous wit; my original impetus was a desire to definitively prove wit the superior form of humor, but after some careful reflection, I’m not even going to bother trying.
I’ve recently found myself increasingly distrustful of easy answers, even skeptical of answers in general. I’ve mostly noticed it as a feeling—sometimes a wise sense of patience, at other times a lazy despair—that causes me to always suspect there’s more to the truth than whatever thesis I’m reading can contain. It’s nowhere more concrete, though, than in my writing for this blog.
Whenever I’ve tried to write the sort of startling and declarative statement that will grab the blogosphere’s attentions, inspire passionate debate, and rack up the page views, I unfortunately keep writing after I’ve made my point. Following the writing to fuller description and acknowledgement of exceptions, I complicate the simple thesis I started with until I end up with a subtler, less conclusive truth (see Punning in Circles). Maybe it is all this humor studying, but it increasingly seems to me that every answer is a punchline when compared with the rich complications of the actual truth.
As a result, I want to start this discussion with a punchline of sorts for us to work our way backwards from: an image of me in the year 2000, when I was eighteen years old and as close as I’ve ever been to feeling like I had all the answers: I was so sure I had life figured out that I started wearing a karaoke microphone tied to my belt loop as a fashion accessory.
I was crammed into the bitch seat of a Ford Festiva, the closest I ever got to perfection.
It was the winter of my senior year of high school, and I was pretty sure I had it all figured out: I’d read a bunch of Kerouac the previous summer.
Kerouac made me want to be a writer. He made me want to be an intellectual rebel. He made me want to be a spiritual searcher. He made me want to be a Buddhist. He made me want to be a weeping angel of hangdog grace.
And since I was still in high school, I could be all those things just by saying so.
So what if you’re on the football team? I’m a writer. No, I don’t have a book published—I’m only 18—but I’ll show you my moleskine if you promise not to read it.
And I’ve got to say, I find your suburban Lutheranism dogmatic. I prefer the spiritual freedom of Buddhism. No, I guess I don’t pray, or meditate, or go to temple, or whatever—but I assure you, I am a Buddhist: notice, please, the Alan Watts paperback that has accidentally slipped out of my backpack beside your foot.
I hope it is clear that I’m poking fun at myself here—not those beliefs. While I consider myself a Christian now, I still feel there is a wealth of beauty and wisdom to be found studying Buddhism, and I truly have no idea who I would be if I hadn’t read On the Road and Dharma Bums when I was 17. But in a comfortable suburban life without too many opportunities to test and prove my beliefs to others or even myself, I spent a lot of time on symbolic gestures I hoped wouldn’t just communicate, but also cement and validate, the changes I felt going on inside me.
And for some reason, there was a week during that February when I thought tying a karaoke microphone to my belt-loop and wearing it like a fashion accessory was the perfect representation of everything I wanted to believe about myself.
I had a tight group of friends growing up, 5 or 6 guys who all hung together every weekend of high school, playing videogames and listening to music we were sure everyone else at our school was too stupid to like. We certainly weren’t cool—there were no girls anywhere near us—but we weren’t such big losers that we couldn’t fool ourselves into thinking we were actually cooler than everyone: that the pop squad in our school didn’t actually know what cool was; that once we got to college, we’d already have all the right indie rock and avant garde electronica CD’s and it would be clear who was actually cool all along.
R was one of the first of us to get a car, and we’d all cram into that tiny, wheezing Ford Festiva like pubescent clowns: blotchy faces, awkward physiques, and big smiles all around. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as simply happy as I did in the back of that car as we all traded off making fun of each other and the dolts we went to school with, always rehashing and adding to our history of inside jokes. As integral as they seemed to my life at the time, I’ve forgotten most of these little witties—and like most wit, they aren’t as funny when removed from the elements that inspired them—but here’s one example to give you an idea of where our heads were at at the time: one of the most famous and re-referenced of our jokes had to do with the time B made a point of vowing to all of us that he would lose his virginity on his upcoming trip to Steamboat Springs; it only took K a few seconds to come up with the term Fornication Proclamation, which took years and years for B to live down.
It was with this feeling in mind that I picked a karaoke microphone out of the back of R’s closet and wore it out to Cheapo Records, Blockbuster Video, and Granny’s Donuts that night. I mostly kept it tucked into my pocket, but would pull it out at moments when I felt seized by wit, raising it to highlight how important the pun or that’s what she said waiting on my lips was, then turning it on my friend for his reaction.
At times, I’d wondered if it wasn’t wrong to be mean to each other all the time, but I’d extrapolated a nearly religious reverence for wit from what I understood of Kerouac’s spontaneous writing process: if some force beyond my control and consciousness plopped a funny into my head, it was my duty to say it out loud; wit was worth so much more than the sort of contrived statements most people made when they thought before speaking. Taking the microphone around with me was my way of showing the world this deeply held belief: this shared experience between my friends was something of holy import. Like Jack and his crew of Desolation Angels, our lives were a matter of precious record.
I wanted to start my posts on the dichotomy between wit and prepared humor with this anecdote, firstly, to remind myself that there is no bigger fool that someone trying to take humor too seriously. I think the me back then would be happy to be called a fool, and I must not mind much either, because I keep groping around for something profound to say on this blog despite never getting hold of anything better to show than my own ass. Being a fool is unavoidable, but I hope that by grounding the discussion in proof of my follies, I won’t be tempted to many quick, sweeping judgements.
As you can see in the example, wit can’t exist without relatively tight connections between the speaker and the listener. We were like a gang back then, with little life to speak of outside the life we shared at school and on the weekends; I couldn’t see it at the time, but the other kids didn’t laugh at the same jokes we did, not because they were stupid or because we were the chosen witty few, but simply because they didn’t spend as much time in R’s basement laying the groundwork for all those connections as we did.
Further, it requires a relatively strong sense of comfort to be receptive to a witty idea—they come to us less often in unfamiliar or threatening situations—and an even stronger sense of confidence to share it. It was these benefits the group afforded us, I see now, and not any holy calling, that made us such exceptional jokesters.
I had good intentions, I think, in espousing a philosophy that was open to anyone, but in practice, I was just drawing thicker lines around our group: we needed the microphone because it set us apart in a way that proved we were more important than the jocks or the freaks or the band nerds or the pop squad. One of the few specific instances I can remember using the microphone was to mock A for hanging out with the popular kids in pursuit of a girl who hung around with them; as with the Fornication Proclamation, I think we were really just trying to keep anyone from leaving the gang, trying to protect that sense of comfortable confidence we’d built together.
We couldn’t all stay in that Festiva for ever, though, and it was probably my anxiety about high school ending and us all moving on to different colleges that had me trying to hold on to what we had with a fundamentalist fervor. Thankfully, I only wore the microphone to school once or twice the next week and then half-heartedly again the next weekend before letting go of the phase. It wasn’t going to keep A from falling in love and it wasn’t going to keep time from passing. Nothing could keep our group together forever, especially since none of them seemed to want to chase after the wild literary life with me in college: as close as we were, I couldn’t get any of them to want to be the Ginsburg to my Kerouac. I couldn’t even get them to read Kerouac.
I’m happy to say I’m still close friends with almost all of the guys, but I don’t think we’ve ever been as close as we were when crammed into that Festiva. How could we be while trying to grow and explore the larger world, building adult lives for ourselves? As we all moved into the larger world, we had to turn our backs on our inside jokes, and I learned the value of a good prepped joke in an unfamiliar, high-pressure situation…
As a socially anxious guy lost in all sorts of new situations, I started softening up to prepared jokes in college. Nervous in class and hanging on the wall at parties, zingers didn’t come to me as free and easy as they had in the back of R’s Festiva. And when they did, how could I be sure that whatever beautiful, intelligent young woman I was stuttering at would enjoy the esoteric self-deprecation that had just popped into my head? The carefully composed and considered joke is a safer bet, playing on more general commonalities.
Considering this and how we’d used wit to draw a line around our tight-nit group in high school, it is tempting to say that prepared jokes bring us together while wit divides us, but I think we’d, once again, be wrong to make such a general conclusion. Considering many common joke formulas, we can see that a sizable number of prepared jokes actually seek to reinforce the lines that divide us: the vast catalog of racist jokes, sexist jokes, and homophobic jokes only succeed if the teller and audience both feel they are on the same side of the line that divides themselves and the subject of the joke. For a less malicious example, there are certain jokes I only tell to foodies at work and others I’ll only bother sharing with my comic book friends; every joke has a particular audience, the group of people who will “get” it, and successfully sharing a joke confirms that both teller and listener are part of that group.
In telling even our most common and harmless jokes, we seek, at the very least, to confirm our common understanding of what it means to be human. As inclusive as this seems, you can easily imagine an alien or a cyborg feeling left out as a group of humans convulse with laughter over a seeming triviality—especially if you’ve ever overheard a joke told in a foreign tongue and sat silent through everyone else’s joyous reaction.
So, like wit, jokes rely on social connections and exclusions, but a distinction exists between the two, I believe, in whether or not the lines they are playing on already exist. A written joke draws on an existing line; people prepare themselves for a social situation by capitalizing on what they know:
I don’t know any of these guys at my brother-in-law’s poker game, but since we’re all guys, I can assume we’ll all agree blonde women are of below average intelligence.
This such a diverse gathering of people, I’m afraid that anything I might say will offend someone’s political or religious beliefs. But since we’re all Minnesotans, here, I think it’s safe for me to claim that Iowans are of below average intelligence.
The preponderance of people searching the internet for specific jokes—about walnuts or hammocks—is proof of this; it is nice to come into a unsure social situation with a remark that will prove we are already part of the group.
Wit, in contrast, is less concerned with reinforcing existing social lines than in building new connections. When we stray off the script and take a risk on a witty comment, we’re gambling that there is a more particular and personal connection between ourselves and our conversation partner than whatever societal connections might have brought us together. Successful reparte is proof two people aren’t just connected by their circumstances, but by their individual intelligence as well, making great leaps together instead of following the prescribed steps of a rote dance.
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 that 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.
As an addendum to our discussion of the dichotomy between wit and composed jokes, I want to take a few paragraphs to discuss racist, homophobic, and sexist humor. In linking wit to liberalism and jokes to conservatism, I used hate humor as evidence, pointing out that our culture’s vast catalogue of such jokes serve to conserve prestige and privilege for the group telling them.
Proofreading right before posting, though, I realized I had missed a possible contradiction to my argument: racist wit. If the divide between wit and jokes is really like a road that humor crosses back and forth over, it makes sense that there would be a sort of wit that would correspond to jokes that rely on hate speech. Does such a wit exist, and if so, would it mean that wit isn’t actual the liberal side of the street?
Irresponsible, I know, but I posted anyway and decided to figure out if what I had written was right or wrong later. And after a week of consideration, I think I was right all along: there is no such thing as hateful wit. I might just be trying to make the world into what I want it to be with this line of reasoning, but I truly believe that wit is by definition open and searching, and as a result, closed-minded comments can never really be witty.
What ultimately convinced me of this was considering examples from life. Most of the hate humor I’ve come across has, thankfully, not been from my friends and family but at work, where we don’t have as much power choosing our conversation partners. For example, for a while I was forced to work closely with a particularly miserable guy we’ll call K; whenever the rest of us at work would get a nice, convivial, and witty conversation going, he’d have to interject his a racist, sexist, or homophobic comment to get in on the fun. But it never came across as witty, just another instance of K trying to force his agenda on our otherwise free-ranging conversation.
(Looking back, I don’t think K’s agenda was propagating a misogynist worldview as much as satiating his need to control the conversation, making everyone feel uncomfortable so he could feel power. I think there was a bit of jealousy in it, as well; unwilling or unable to open himself up to the creativity of wit, he was often left behind in our conversations and probably wanted to ruin what he couldn’t participate in.)
All hate humor has an agenda; even it’s most spontaneous expression is built on preconceived notions for the purpose further propagating those notions—and as such, it is never pure wit. Finding the opportune moment to say what you’ve been wanting to say is a different thing than finding the novel words this fresh moment demands. As such, hate humor is also the enemy of conversation; a moment of such forced “wit” will always end a conversation uncomfortably if the audience doesn’t agree (as with K) or tighten it into something less than a conversation, as all the participants talk only to reinforce their shared opinions instead of exchanging foreign ideas.