What's funny? What isn't? And why do I never get a laugh when I tell that joke about the moose?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Rule of Three

The president of Coors, the President of Anheuser Busch and the president of Guinness meet each other at a brewer’s convention. They fall into a conversation, and, finding one another congenial company, decide to continue the conversation at a nearby bar.

“What will it be, gents?” asks the bartender.

“I’ll have a Coors,” says the president of Coors.

“I’ll have a Budweisser,” says the president of Anheuser-Busch.

“I’ll have a Coke,” says the president of Guinness.

His two friends look at him in surprise. “A Coke?” they demand. “Why did you order a Coke?”

“Well,” the president of Guinness replies. “I figured since you boys weren’t drinking beer, I wouldn’t either!”

Notice, that was three guys walking into a bar. Not two, not four. When it comes to jokes, three is the magic number. (Cue music from Schoolhouse Rock).

A lot of humor is based on surprise. When something doesn’t happen the way we expect it--that stepping-on a-stair-that-isn’t-there feeling--one typical result is to laugh.

“Knock knock”
“Who’s there?”

“Banana who?”

“Banana banana”

“Knock knock”
“Who’s there?”
“Banana who?”
“Banana banana”

“Knock knock”
“Who’s there?”
“Orange who?”
“Orange you glad I didn‘t say banana?”

This “rule of three” is important--not just to jokes, but to storytelling in general. Writing an essay or a magazine article, I frequently try to come up with three examples--anything less may not support my contention. Anything more is padding.

But it’s in humor that the Rule of Three is most important….and it’s so obvious it’s almost instinctive. The first instance sets up the situation. The second instance establishes the pattern. The third instance breaks the pattern. The result is surprise, and laughter.

I don’t think that you can go so far as to say that surprise is the essence of all humor, but certainly a big part of what we think is funny is the shock of broken expectations.

A Rabbi, a priest and a minister walk into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, “What is this, some kind of a joke?”

I told you breaking patterns is funny.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Grammar? I Hardly Touched 'Er!

Okay, here’s where I hear the Awkward Silence a lot: I think grammar jokes are funny.

Seriously. Jokes about proper English usage make me laugh out loud. You can blame my late mother, a woman who had both a wicked sense of humor and a terrible passion for correct usage. (She was a copy editor at Time Magazine, for God’s sake, back when a single published typo meant the head of the copy department had to commit hari kari.) Her bible was The Elements of Style.

Anyway, due to nature or nurture, I love grammar jokes. Almost nobody else thinks they’re funny. In fact, most people don’t get the jokes at all: after you’ve told them, you usually have to explain them. Then people get them. They still don’t LAUGH, but at least they get them.

Here are three examples:

1) Back in the 1980s, my mom was working as a managing editor for a high-tech magazine and was fighting a losing battle over usage. Specifically, the fact that one piece of data is “datum”, and that one or more pieces of “datum” were “data”.

Ultimately, she had a large sign typeset and set above her desk. The sign read:

“Data are a word that are plural!”

Well, SHE thought it was funny.

2) Bob and Joe are new emigrants to America from the non-English speaking country of your choice. The two of them diligently study English, and are constantly testing one another and correcting grammar and pronunciation.

One day, Bob comes home from work to find his wife undressed, in bed and looking a little—um, excited, let’s say. Suspicious, Bob stalks to the bedroom closet and flings the door open. There he finds, much to his shock, his friend Joe, completely naked.

“Joe,” Bob exclaims, “I am surprised!”

“No, no,” says Joe. “I am surprised. You are shocked!”

Joe is surprised because he didn’t expect Bob to open the door, see, while Bob is shocked because of WHO he found when he… Sigh.

3) A couple of men fall overboard from an ocean liner. The first one loses his head and screams “I will drown, no one shall save me!” and sinks like a stone.

The second man, a grammar pedant, cries out, “I shall drown, no one will save me!” and is promptly rescued.

You see, in the first person, ‘shall’ indicates a simple future, something that the speaker believes will happen. Whereas, in the first person, ‘will’ indicates the subjective, a determination obligation to do something. In the second and third person, the definitions of ‘shall’ and ‘will’ are reversed, with ‘shall’ indicating the subjunctive and ‘will’ the simple future.

Thus, the first man indicates that he is DETERMINED to drown, and that no one will be allowed to rescue him.

By contrast, the second man utters his belief that he will drown, and that no one will be able to rescue him. But this doesn’t mean he will not allow himself to be rescued, and so he is. Hahah!

Get it? Isn’t that a knee-slapper? Doesn’t that make you want to…

Ahhh…that Awkward Silence.

Anybody else got a grammar joke they’d like to share?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Did You Hear the One About...?

Welcome to the first posting on: “The Awkward Silence” or “Well, I thought it was funny.” It’s a blog dedicated to funny stuff. At least, as the title suggests, stuff that I think is funny.

Not everybody agrees.

Long ago, I realized that my sense of humor is a bit…skewed, at least by the usual standards. I think puns are funny, for example. I like jokes and shaggy dog stories. On the other hand, I usually don’t care for slapstick, and most stand-up comics leave me cold (Dane Cook should spend his days selling ice cream from a Good Humor truck).

Obviously, this leaves me a bit out of the mainstream—although I am very popular with Good Humor men.

Having a slightly off-center sense of humor is kind of unfortunate if, like me, you’ve spent part of the last 30 years writing humor columns and funny plays, performing as an comic actor and improv comic, and otherwise trying to tickle the public’s funny bone.

I’ve spent a lot of time waiting for the laugh.

Anyway, the idea of “The Awkward Silence” is to create a kind of forum of funny: exactly what is funny? Why is it funny? And why does Paul Murphy get more laughs telling exactly the same joke than I do?

Anyway, something to keep in mind as you read—and hopefully respond—to this blog. Please respect other people’s opinions. Humor is entirely subjective, after all. Even if—no especially—if you disagree, try to do so without attacking the individual. After all, there’s only one opinion that really matters.


(See, that was a joke. Damned crickets.)

In closing, I’d like to explain this blog’s title.

Years back, I was directing a holiday performance of “The Shop Around the Corner” at a local theater. I had a cast of around 14 men, women and kids sitting on the stage while I spoke to them.

I told a joke. And I sat back, expectantly.

I don’t remember what the joke was—that’s not the point. I was the director. The director of a play is exactly like the boss in any office—if he tells a joke, you laugh, whether you think it’s funny or not. That’s one of the unspoken rules of capitalism.

But after I told this joke, I got nothing. Nada. Zip. Blank looks and the slight shuffling of papers.

You could almost hear the lonely howling of wolves in the distance.

After a subjective ten years, my 12 year old daughter rose to my defense. My daughter was one of a chorus of urchins that was to sing Christmas carols as various emotionally significant moments of the play. Into the middle of the yawning void, she called out the following:

“The awkward silence means it’s a joke.”