Here's a joke. And since I am too lazy to paraphrase it, let me admit I lifted it (almost) verbatim from here (though I first read it on the "Lilt of Irish Laughter" page, in Ireland's Own magazine):
A man jumps out of an airplane with a parachute on his back. As he's falling, he realizes his parachute is broken. He doesn't know anything about parachutes, but as the earth rapidly approaches, he realizes his options are limited. He takes off the parachute and tries to fix it himself on the way down. The wind is ripping past his face, he's dropping like a rock, and at 5000 feet, another man goes shooting up past him. In desperation, the man with the chute looks up and yells, "Hey do you know anything about parachutes?!"
The guy flying up looks down and yells, "No, do you know anything about gas stoves?!"
Did you laugh? I hope so.
I posted this not so much for the sake of the joke itself (though I think it's a good one), but because I've been musing today about the nature of jokes. Have you ever noticed that the set-up to an outlandish joke is usually the funniest thing about such a joke, rather than the punchline-- even if the punchline is very funny?
In this joke, the idea of two men passing each other while one is plummeting to earth and the other is being shot into the air is not only funny, but somehow very poetic. It's also profound. Anyone can see that it is rather expressive of the human predicament and of human interaction.
Some people hate jokes. (And no, I don't just mean that they hate the jokes I tell. They really hate jokes. They say so.) I don't know whether it's rooted in their own personality, or whether it's an attitude they've picked up from elsewhere, but they seem to think that joke-telling is aggressive, uninspired and dull-- the province of fat, port-drinking, bottom-pinching senior civil servants in the billiard room of some gentleman's club. Some people profess, or at least they display, a preference for whimsy and quirkiness and deliberate nonsense.
I can't sympathise with these people. I love jokes, and I've always loved jokes. I love the poetry of jokes. I love how a joke conjures up a tiny little world of its own, a world as limited and as perfect in itself as the inside of a snowglobe. And-- despite the fact that jokes will always tend to outrage every standard of political correctness, and are notoriously supposed to re-assert societal power structures (or some such thing)-- jokes are very democratic. Unless they are in-jokes belonging to some trade or calling, they assume no special knowledge or sophistication on the part of the listeners. Why else are they so often used as ice-breakers?
Jokes are fascinating in many ways.
Jokes are the most perfect, compressed, economic form of short story.
Jokes are the most vibrant form of folklore.
Jokes are mysterious things. Where do they come from? Why do they take off? Why do they last as long as they do? Why do they eventually fall out of favour?
I have long harboured the ambition to study jokes at an academic level and to become a renowned expert upon them. Think of all the invitations you'd get-- radio shows, conferences, TV panel discussions! Think of the dinner parties! Think of the pleasure of telling someone who'd just told you the latest joke that, "Actually, variants of that joke were known in medieval Germany, and possibly before that"! Think of the long hours of "research", going through old copies of Punch and Tit-Bits!
I remember when I was a child, painting a picture of Paddy Englishman, Paddy Scotsman, and Paddy Irishman (a rather strange Irish joke cycle-- why would an Englishman or a Scotsman be called Paddy?) My motive for painting it was entirely to try to capture the timeless, mythological, golden atmosphere of their world.
At least two writers that I know of-- G.K. Chesterton and John D. Sheridan-- have written about the religious implications of humour. Humour doesn't make much sense if you have a materialist conception of the world. If man belongs entirely to the realm of the physical, just like waves or beetles or hurricanes, what could be comical about his adventures and indignities? I won't try to define humour, since no definition ever seems to fit. But everybody senses that it involves some kind of contrast between expectation and outcome, between appropriateness and incongruity, between dignity and indignity. How can any of these ideas apply to a materialist universe, where there are no moral norms, no intrinsic purpose or function, no such word as should? And-- although this is harder to argue, but I think anyone would feel the truth about it if they were honest-- how could we laugh without some inner assurance that the universe is ultimately friendly?
(Not that I agree with everything G.K. Chesterton wrote about humour. The great man once wrote: "Unless a thing is dignified, it cannot be undignified. Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God. It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down." Well, one of the funniest things I ever saw was a cow climbing onto a wooden trailer that was slanted upwards, only to come crashing down a moment later. The cow was on my aunt's farm. Goodness knows why she decided to climb on the trailer.)
I guess I'm not going to get away with ending this post without another joke. OK, here goes. I've never known this one not to get a laugh (though doubtless you, Gentle Reader, will defy all precedence).
A man goes to the dentist for a check-up, and the dentist says: "Well, look at this! The plate I put in the top of your mouth a few years ago, is nearly all corroded! What have you been eating?"
"I don't know", says the patient. "What would do that?"
"Well, try to think of something you started eating recently."
The patient thinks for a little while, gives an embarrassed laugh, and says: "Oh...there is one thing. Hollandaise sauce. I've developed quite the appetite for it. In fact, I have it several times a week. I won't have to give it up, will I?"
"Not at all", said the dentist. "I know how to fix it pretty easily. I'll just replace this metal plate with a chrome plate."
"Chrome?", asked the patient. "But why chrome?"
"Haven't you ever heard?", asked the dentist. "There's no plate like chrome for the hollandaise."