My friend John and I have had a long-running discussion about the nature of humor -- and the dangers of using it.
And not just the most obvious danger -- that too many people spend their days looking for new ways to be offended; inevitably finding comfort in the humid embrace of moral indignation. The type of people who clutch their pearls in horror at the mention of “breast” -- even if it was once attached to a Rhode Island red, or who suffer fits of the vapors when confusing “racial” comments with “racist” sentiments.
No, our usual targets are the people who Just Don’t Get It. John and I have labeled them as the Literalists -- the people who fervently believe that words can only have one meaning (the preferred meaning of the Literalists) and who distrust “funny” people who abuse words and twist them into something they just do not understand. Their patron saint is Margaret Dumond.*
I have run into them often. At work. During training sessions. At church. During meals.
Sometimes I think it is cultural. Let me give an obvious example from my part of Mexico. Americans and Canadians seem to work from completely different palettes when it comes to bringing down the house.
But nothing like the differences I have encountered with my Mexican acquaintances. Mexicans love being funny -- especially with puns.
My Spanish is not adequate enough to fully appreciate the word play. But, even when the word tension is explained, I do not have enough cultural awareness to appreciate the expertise at work.
That experience helped me appreciate an experience Rob Long (an American screenwriter) had with a French acquaintance.
“You know what I love so much about the American show Friends?” a French writer once asked me, “I love the dialogues,” he said slipping back and forth between English and French. “Les dialogues sont drôles! J’adore les dialogues en double sens!” “Ah, yes,” I said. “In English we call them double entendres.”That brings me to the title of this essay. John’s family background is Swiss German. Based on blood, he claims to have a particular insight into national humor.
He looked at me funny. “That is not English,” he said. “That is French.”
”Yes,” I said. “I was making a joke. Because in English we use the French term. And so I thought it was funny to say that a French phrase was an English phrase because … well …”
I trailed off. He looked baffled and utterly lost. My (admittedly weak) witticism was lost somewhere in the gray zone of French humor. It was nether boldly scatological nor a simple play of opposites, so it as rejected by the rigid and often robotic French funny bone.
He once summed it up thus. “My German relatives find slapstick humor hilarious. The acme would be a well-dressed businessman slipping on a banana peel, falling down, and tearing his trousers. A coda of ‘And they were new trousers’ would bring down the house.” (John's theory is backed up by the German Institute for Humour in Leipzig. I kid you not.)
I thought of that gag on this trip. One of my shopping stops was Costco to buy a pair of black Dockers. I am tired of searching out the rare dry cleaners in Mexico for my wool slacks. So, I thought, cotton would solve my dilemma.
Rather than packing my new pants, I decided to wear them on the trip back home. Between Bend and Portland, I managed to poke a hole in the left leg (my telephone is the prime suspect).
For some reason, I failed to see the German humor in the situation. Probably because I tend to get my yuks with droll metaphors comparing Greek philosophers with Melaque street vendors -- humor that is far more fragile than French scatology.
So, here I sit with a hole in my pants and a punchline dangling somewhere out there in the ether.
Maybe I should simply be glad to be back home.
And that is not a laughing matter.
* -- The Literalists are not to be confused with people who have the discernment to sniff out bad humor, and react accordingly. Of course, most Literalists think they are members of that group. They aren't.