What Makes Something Funny? (Part 1)

What makes something funny? Why do we find certain things funny and other not?

Here I am, working on my dozenth novel, which uses humor throughout to temper the deadly chase the protagonists are in. All of my other novels had humor in them to one degree or another. I’ve written a darkly comic play. I’ve written hundreds of radio spots, most of which also used humor. I feel I can wield humor with deadly accuracy. Yet there are times when it escapes me why I find some things funny.

Some of it is related to family culture, I’m sure. My dad was never afraid to laugh at anything he thought was funny. Sometimes he would be the only one laughing in a theater. He once upstaged a community theater production I was in (Mary, Mary) by laughing for ten minutes at the line, “Are you in the mood? Because if you’re not, I’m going to take a sleeping pill.”

The fondness for dark humor comes from my mother (who would never admit it), and was nailed into place at a young age when I discovered an anthology of Charles Addams cartoons in the local library.

But that doesn’t explain everything.

When I was in college, an issue of National Lampoon did a piece on how your age affected what you found funny. It divided a person’s lifetime up into periods, and featured a joke that would appeal to each period. I don’t remember anything but the final entry, the category something like “Age 75+.” The joke was, “A man sat in a chair.”

I thought it was hilarious, probably because what made it funny was the fact that it wasn’t funny. One day after being up for more than 30 hours, cramming for and taking final exams, I couldn’t stop laughing about “A man sat in a chair.” It became a catch phrase for me in college, and spread among my circle of friends.

What prompts this query is my daily desk calendar at work. This year it’s Dilbert. Friday’s cartoon I thought was quite unfunny. It was Dogbert and the pointy haired boss in three Doonesburyesque frames (that is, all nearly identical), and the copy went something like this:

Frame 1
Caption: Dogbert Consults
DOGBERT: My data-mining software has found another message from God.

Frame 2
DOGBERT: It says you’ve been stealing lunches from the refrigerator in the break room.

Frame 3
DOGBERT: Then it says, “Ha ha, that wasn’t pudding!”

Not one of Scott Adams’ shining moments of humor to be sure. I looked at it all Friday and couldn’t wait until today when I could come in and tear it off.

Now, this morning, I find it hilarious. Not the strip, the setup or the execution. The phrase. Ha ha, that wasn’t pudding!

It’s resonating, it’s echoing through my head and won’t go away. I can’t wait for someone to ask a strange question so I can use is as a non-sequitur answer. I feel a new catch phrase coming on.

Why? Why why why?

It’s stupid and there’s no reason for it.

Well, I was ill over the weekend. Maybe I’m sicker and more sleep deprived than I thought.

A man sat in a chair.

Ha ha, that wasn’t pudding!


NP – Genesis, Selling England by the Pound


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