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No Joke

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

Mark Twain is still funny after all these years. I recently read Roughing It, his 1872 account of five years in the West, seeking fortune and avoiding the Civil War. It is hilarious, even when treating topics like the strange career of Slade, a murderous gunman he met who courteously insisted that Twain, rather than he, take the last cup of coffee in the pot. In a tensely funny scene the author pondered his response carefully, fearful that Slade "had not killed anybody that morning, and might be needing diversion." Contrast Twain with the "latest joke" published in a magazine in 1857, the butt of which is an English gentleman traveling in the U.S. by railroad. The locomotive's boiler explodes. He keeps reading his newspaper until informed that his servant "has been blown into a hundred pieces." The punch line is "Bring me the piece that has the key to my portmanteau." While that might have been a knee-slapper in the mid-19th century, even adding obscenities wouldn't get it to Comedy Central today.

Humor doesn't travel well across generations, let alone a century. What my parents thought was funny baffled me. The name "Chick Sale" always brought chuckles. I thought he was a mythical hero, a John Henry for white people. He was real enough, a comic who played a hayseed discoursing learnedly on his "specialty." What was it? He was "the champion privy builder of Sangamon County," so good at it that his name passed into the language as a euphemism for "outhouse." I also discovered among my parents' papers a long handwritten story about a telephone operator mistakenly connecting two callers. One is a husband believing that he is talking to a doctor about how to energize his lethargic wife. The other is a salesman giving instructions on "how to make a water-meter washer run better." Double-entendres fly before the operator realizes her mistake. From a contemporary perspective the joke is unintelligible because it has: a) operators connecting calls and living in the U.S.; b) someone other than the government eavesdropping on telephone calls; and, c) salespeople understanding what they sell.

I don't mean that nothing from that era is still funny. A contrary example is Mae West's great one-liners, only a few of which are printable here: "It's not the men in my life that counts; it's the life in my men." "I used to be Snow White, but I drifted." "Too much of a good thing is wonderful." (If you like off-color jokes, check out her comparison of a popular card game with sex.) The fact that very little humor stands the test of time only deepens the mystery of why some does.

An explanation for the short shelf life of comedy might be that most humor is topical, hence quickly dated. Jokes about exploding locomotives and misguided telephone operators aren't at the cutting edge of contemporary comedy. I, however, don't buy the topicality argument, and Twain is a case in point. Topics he treated — courteous gun slingers, Mormon polygamy, and Chinese immigration — aren't present-day hot-button issues, except in certain parts of the country. What he did brilliantly was give a picture of a particular time and place while pushing readers in ways that transcend time and place. With Slade he posed the question of how someone so polite and utterly devoted to his wife could be a cold-blooded killer, terrified about his own death. Gunslingers might have been peculiar to the 19th-century West, but people like Slade aren't. With the Mormons and Chinese, Twain challenged readers (and still does) to face their own prejudices and assumptions. Maybe polygamy wasn't a bad thing, he argued. Why discriminate against the Chinese, who were hardworking and, unlike their white fellow miners, stayed sober and didn't kill each other? Twain's comedy forces us to think. Maybe that, not indoor plumbing, is why he is still around and Chick Sale isn't. Mae West is a different story.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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