I have a joke in mind. My mind produced it one night recently when I was sleeping. So far, no one has liked it, which makes it a really unfunny joke, and the experience has turned me to thinking about humor generally.
A great deal has been written about theories of humor. None of it is funny, of course. That’s not what it is for. But my favorite book about why things are funny is actually funny itself. It is Max Eastman’s, The Enjoyment of Laughter—a book I would recommend to anyone who either a) enjoys a good laugh or b) wants to know more about just what makes it funny.
Eastman says that two things are necessary for something to be funny. There must be a discrepancy of some kind and there must be a setting which encourages or allows you to take it lightly. Jokes that turn on ethnic or gender or professional stereotypes are a good example. You can describe a situation that could be understood either of two ways, the classic discrepancy. But in an audience that disapproves of…oh…Polish jokes, let’s say…the permission to regard it as funny is missing. So it isn’t funny. Or at least you try not to laugh at the time.
That is a bit of a trial for people of my advanced years. I learned a lot of jokes when I was young and I was taught that they were funny and that they were acceptable. I still think they are funny, but they are mostly not acceptable any more. So I don’t tell them. And when I can manage it, I don’t laugh at them either.
It’s sad, really. The old agreement was that I tell jokes that make fun of your ethnicity and you respond by telling jokes that make fun of mine. The rule was that “equally offensive” was about the same as “inoffensive.” Under current conditions, the fact that someone was offended by it is the defining trait and we can see nearly anything as offensive.
The other part of humor is that the two perceptions that make up the discrepancy need to be j-u-u-u-st the right distance apart. I always thought about it like a spark gap. If you make the spark—the discrepancy— too big, the spark can’t jump it and the joke loses its power. If they are too close together, there is no snap in resolving it.
Here’s an example of “too far apart.” Eastman tells of a funny obituary published in the London Times. It read, “Died, John Longbottom, age six and a half months. Vita brevis est…” When I got the joke years later, I thought it was really funny but that is a long time to wait.
Why did it take me so long? It wasn’t the Latin quotation. I didn’t know it, but it was easy to look up. The whole quotation is “Vita brevis est, ars longa.” My previous contact with ars with on the Metro-Goldyn-Mayer logo, which says “Ars gratia artis.” That’s how I knew it meant “art”—the motto means “Art for art’s sake.” And, in the same way, I knew that it was pronounced “arz.”
I did know, in some other part of my brain, that there was an informal British usage, arse, meaning ass. If those two parts of my brain had been communicating better, I would have heard “arse longa” instead of “arz longa,” which is what I did hear.
Then it would have taken me the one final step of seeing Longbottom, John’s last name, as suggested in the English “arse longa.” So of the Latin maxim, “Vita brevis est…” , the part the printed, means “Life is short.” The infant died at six and a half months, so I see that part. The other part, the part they counted on me to know would be said “arse longa” and would not means “art endures,” as it should. It would mean…well…long bottom.”
I needed the English slang pronunciation and the Latin maxim and I needed to get over what I knew from the MGM logo and all of those added up to too much distance for the spark to jump. A few years later, I thought it was really funny.
The joke I thought of was like that, I regret to say. It wasn’t like that for me, of course. Even in my sleep I thought it was funny and when I woke up, I still thought it was funny. Here’s the background. On August 25, Bette and I are going to take the final step toward our residency at Holladay Park Plaza, which is the retirement center we have chosen. The final step is to actually purchase our apartment unit, so we are going to sit down and write a check for a staggering amount of money. It’s not too much for what we are getting for it; it’s just a big amount.
Somewhere in there, the expression au revoir came to my mind. I don’t know why, really, but I suspect that the Latin origins of our word carnival pushed me in this direction. “Carnival” is supposed to be the day just before Lent, a time when many Christians forego eating meat as a way of preparing for the celebration of Easter. The carn- part of carnival is “meat” as we know from words like carnivor. The other part, vale, means goodbye, so the source of our word carnival is “goodbye to meat.”
I think I was floating in that current when I hit au revoir because something divided the expression into “Goodbye to what?” and having gotten that far, I noticed that Au is the symbol for the element, gold. That means that one way of sensing the discrepancy is that Au revoir (notice the capital A) is a way of saying “goodbye to gold,” which is a pretty good way of categorizing the meeting where we write the check for our apartment.
So that’s the inside story. But to be a good joke, it needs to match a lot of people’s outside story and when I look at what that would require, I can see why it wouldn’t work very often. I tend to think of jokes for very small collections of people anyway.  But this one would require that people: a) know what au revoir means, b) notice the odd capital A in Au and make the connection to the symbol for gold, c) combine those two meanings into a “goodbye to gold” saying, and d) relate that saying to the situation in which Bette and I are writing a large check to the retirement center.
It’s asking a lot. It is, in fact, asking too much and the very spotty nature of the response is just what I deserved.
 I once developed, over several years, a joke that required as the punchline the four principal parts of a common irregular Latin verb. Great joke. No audience.