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

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

True Lazar Tales #2

Every once in a while, the Gods of Humor smile on you. When the forces of the Cosmic Ha come together. When the Universal Straight-Man echoes the Ultimate Question in your ear.

It doesn’t happen very often, so when it does, you’ve got to savor it.

I had one such experience more than 20 years ago, but I still cherish it.

The Time: 1988

The Place: A fancy hotel on Long Island. Indoor pool, bowling alley, spa, the works.

The Occasion: A corporate retreat for a Custom Magazine Publisher that will remain nameless.

It was a roundtable meeting, as several dozen journalists and editors gathered to discuss the future of magazine publishing (As it turned out, there wasn't one. But that’s another story). One of my colleagues announced that he had to leave the meeting to conduct a previously scheduled interview over the phone.

“My cell phone’s out of power,” he said. “Does anybody know where there are any pay phones.”

“On the main floor,” I volunteered. (I was more observant in those days.) ”There’s a whole bank of them right outside the bowling alley.”

My colleague looked a little concerned.

This was the moment when the cosmic forces aligned—though my colleague had no notion.

“This is an important interview,” he said. “Are you sure it’s quiet enough?”

“Quiet?” I said. “You can hear a pin drop.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard forty people all hiss at once. It’s tremendously satisfying.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

God is An Iron

As long as we're on the subject of Science Fiction writers:

Spider Robinson, is a pretty good science fiction writer with a REALLY good sense of humor. I'll be coming back to him several times in the coming months, but let's start with this observation of his:

"If one who commits gluttony is a glutton, and one who commits a felony is a felon, the God is an iron."

Irony is one of the classic types of humor. It's basically when you you say one thing and mean another (as opposed to a Freudian slip, which is where you say one thing and mean your mother.)

On a cosmic level, it's when human goals and activities end up with the completely opposite results. In literary terms--well, just read O. Henry. There's a reason it's called an "O. Henry Twist". The Gift of the Magi is just about the perfect example of dramatic irony.

To me, irony is the sort of humor that gets a smile--maybe even a snort--but rarely a laugh. There's something satisfying about a drug dealer whose car gets totaled by a drunk driver. Or the anti-gay activist who gets caught with his pants down with another guy.

But at some point, the smile fades. I mean, consider the case of humorist Douglas Adams--told by his doctors to exercise regularly to improve his health, he dutifully ran on a treadmill--until he died on the treadmill of a heart attack.

Or Stephen Hawking, a physicist whose imagination spans the stars, stuck in a disease-ravaged body which he can hardly move, and which makes it almost impossible for him to discuss his own ideas.

Or my good friend, one of the cleverest and most perceptive readers I know, struck with a cerebral episode and aphasia that keeps him from understanding the written word.

Enough irony already. We get the point.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Robert Heinlein is Funny, Dammit! (Part 1)

These days, Robert Heinlein is probably best known as the author of Starship Troopers. It’s a science fiction novel that spawned a tremendously popular—and tremendously stupid movie—and an even stupider (though thankfully not as popular) sequel.

Those who know science fiction a little bit know him as a somewhat controversial figure—rather right-wing, possibly libertarian, with some funky ideas about citizenship and revolution.

Of course, that’s assuming that you can always equate a writer with his writing: I doubt that Ray Bradbury actually advocates setting fire to books, for example.

Those who have read his stuff know that Heinlein won four Hugo Awards (the science fiction equivalent of the Oscar); was arguably the first to create a Future History of humanity; invented the waterbed and the cell phone; and incidentally wrote some of the best science fiction (for both adults and kids) of the 20th century.

Okay, I’m a Heinlein fan. (Also, he looked surprisingly like my late uncle Herbert..)

I certainly don’t need to laud Mr. Heinlein’s accomplishments. I would like to point out that, in passing, he provided one of the single most important pieces of advice ever offered to a professional writer. When writing for pay, he has a character state, always leave a mistake for the editor to fix—if an editor doesn’t find something to change, he gets frustrated, the character says. “Besides, once he pees on it, he likes the flavor better, and he buys it.”

I wanted to bring up something ELSE he did in his writing, which has some little bearing on The Awkward Silence. In the course of his science fiction writing, Robert Heinlein took up the topic of: What is Funny? Not once, but a couple of times.

In his award winning novel The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein posits a highly sophisticated computer that, In his words, “wakes up” and becomes self aware.

The computer, nicknamed “Mike”, also begins to develop a sense of humor….printing out a check for several million billion dollars—to be drawn on the local government—to watch the results. The computer also analyzes the several hundred thousand riddles in its memory bank and creates his own:

Q: Why is a laser beam like a goldfish?

A: Because neither one can whistle.

Which, as Mike’s human friend Mannie admits, is no worse than your average riddle. Mike and Mannie decide to investigate the nature of humor—first establishing that there are several categories of jokes: those that aren’t funny at all; those that are funny once (generally involving a surprise of some sort); and those that are funny always.

Our humor researchers are unable to find a definition for “What is Funny?” that suits them, so they decide to research by example: Mannie will listen to jokes from Mike, and tell him what category HE thinks the joke belongs in. (The do draft a woman into the conversation to gain a second perspective.)

Their research doesn’t get very far, however, because Heinlein is actually telling a different story entirely: The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is actually a rousing (and surprisingly accurate) retelling of the American Revolution in a science fiction setting.

Anyway, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is definitely worth a read (or a reread) just for Heinlein’s thoughts on the nature of humor. It’s a topic he turned to again in Stranger In a Strange Land, about which more another time.

In the meantime, remember: In space, no one can hear the Awkward Silence.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Remember Elephant Jokes?

Q: What do you get when you cross an elephant with peanut butter?
A: An elephant that sticks to the roof of your mouth.

Ahh, elephant jokes. Silly, childish, repetitive...and everybody loves them.

Q: How do you get an elephant in a palm tree?
A: Sit it on a coconut and wait 20 years.

The sheer repetition is part of the fun....just how long can you string out jokes about elephants?

Q: Why do elephants have flat feet?
A: From jumping out of palm trees.

The answer is: "A long time" especially if you can remember back to your childhood.

Q: Why shouldn't you walk in the jungle between two and four in the afternoon?
A: Because that's when elephants are jumping out of palm trees.

In fact, a lot of elephant jokes aren't actually about elephants at all...you can consider the elephant to be nothing more than "a silly joke delivery system."

Q: Why are pygmies so short?
A: Because they walked in the jungle between two and four in the afternoon.

When I was growing up, there was a book called "101 Elephant Jokes". I think I memorized that book, and I think I still remember most of them today.

Q: What do you find between an elephant's toes?
A: Slow running pygmies.

In any event, all of these jokes are from memory.

Q: How can you tell if there's an elephant hiding in your refrigerator?
A: You can see his footprints in the Jell-O

(By the way, if anybody knows if I can find a copy of that book, I'd be most grateful).

Q: Why are elephants big, grey and wrinkled?
A: Because if they were small, white and smooth, they'd be an aspirin.

Anyway, I can't even begin to explain my lasting affection for elephant jokes...

Q: What's the difference between an elephant and a grape?
A: They're both purple, except for the elephant.

In fact, you're probably an elephant joke fan, too. At the very least, you've snorted a time or two...maybe even a full out laugh.

Q: What did Tarzan say when he saw the elephants coming down the path?
A: "Here come the elephants coming down the path!"

I don't want to make this a competition like the limericks (which is still being won by Dr. Jay unopposed...) but if you'd like to post some elephant jokes, you're encouraged to do so.

Q: What did Jane say when she saw the elephants coming down the path?
A: Here come the grapes coming down the path! (she was colorblind)

Just for fun, though...no fair looking at the various elephant joke web sites out there (and there are an appalling number). Elephant jokes from memory, or make them up yourself!

Q: What time is it when an elephant sits on your fence?
A: Time to get a new fence!

On your mark, get set, go!

Thursday, May 13, 2010

I Confess...

A man goes into church and walks right into the confessional.

“Forgive me father, for I have sinned,” he says.

“What’s the nature of your sin?” asks the priest.

“Well, even though I’m sixty years old, and I’m fat and bald, I’ve recently started dating a 25-year-old woman. She’s gorgeous.”

“I see.”

“Father, we’re not married, but we make love constantly. I’m having sex with this amazing creature three or four times a day.”

“Well,” says the priest, “that’s pretty serious. How long has it been since your last confession?”

“Oh, I’ve never been to confession,” says the man. “I’m Jewish.”

“Then.” demands the priest, “what are you telling me this for?”

“I’m telling EVERYBODY!”

That’s one of my favorite silly jokes. You can make a case that it provides an insight into the human condition--and it also is a classic ‘misdirection’ kind of joke…you think it’s going in one direction, and at the last second it veers off into another.

That joke’s been staying with me lately. Here’s the deal: To me, part of humor is finding strange connections between things. Your mind jumps tracks from one subject to another--and somehow there’s pleasure in that jump that makes you laugh.

My mind is constantly jumping tracks and making connections--

You know those Cialis commericals for male…enhancement, shall we say? The ones you wish they wouldn’t broadcast while children are in the room?

Of course you’ve noticed the warnings towards the end of those commercials…the warnings about the possible side effects. In particular, I always perk up when I hear the announcer solemnly intone:

“If your condition lasts more than four hours, consult your doctor immediately.”

Because I always shout to the screen:

“I’m telling EVERYBODY!”

What ensues is, of course, The Awkward Silence.


Lunatic Fringe, New Jersey’s oldest improv comedy group is appearing this Saturday, May 15, at Playwright’s Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. I’m in the cast, and tickets are only $12. A better night of cheap laughs would be hard to find. (Once again, that didn’t sound right…)

Anyway, you can get tickets at the PTNJ Web Site, or by calling (973) 514-1787.

ALSO: Is Dr. Jay the only one who can write limericks? Let’s get to work, you guys…don’t let him win the fabulous prize without any competition at all!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Crash Diet

I watched about 20 minutes of “The Blues Brothers” a couple of days ago. I love watching about 20 minutes of that movie. It has some of the greatest blues artists in some of the greatest performances ever filmed.

I can ONLY watch about 20 minutes at a time because director John Landis thinks car wrecks are funny.

Seriously. There’s a scene in the movie where the two Blues are driving through an indoor shopping mall. Cut to the interior of the vehicle, Belushi reads the name of a store.

Cut to exterior shot of Blues’ car crashing through that store.

Cut to interior shot. Ackroid reads out the name of a different store.

Cut to exterior shot of Blues’ car crashing through that store.

Repeat literally ad nausium.

I really don’t get this sort of thing. I mean, I love a good car chase movie as much as the next guy—but Landis actually seems to think we’re supposed to laugh at this stuff.

John Landis seems to have trouble telling the difference between violence and comedy—see his “comedy” An American Werewolf in London. (A movie I rather liked in an ‘oh my god I can’t look at the screen’ sort of way)

But there are a lot of people who seem to think that car crashes are funny…and it honestly baffles me.

Mind you, Landis DOES have a sense of humor—the man directed Kentucky Fried Movie and Animal House for heaven’s sake. There’s just this …blip…in his psyche. (Or, possibly, in mine.)

Can you set up a car crash so that it’s funny? Sure. Laurel & Hardy had several routines about destroying automobiles that were simply priceless (more on this another time). And Chuck Jones’ Road Runner cartoons are ultimately nothing but a series of violent blackout sketches. But those are funny in context (there’ that word again). There’s nothing funny about the act itself.

Am I wrong? Is a car wreck the mechanical equivalent of a pratfall? Can you point out a car wreck that is intrinsically funny?

Sunday, May 9, 2010

True Lazar Tales #1

As a young man, I went away to college at a university in upstate New York.

As was the custom then (and now, I believe) all the incoming freshmen lived on campus together, in one of several hastily built dormitories. (These dormitories had been hastily built right after World War II to accommodate the influx of returning G.I.s getting their educations under the G.I. Bill. They were still standing -- mostly -- some 30 years later).

In any case, I found myself in a building with some 200 other nervous 17- and 18-year-olds, many of us away from home for the first time in our lives.

We began sorting ourselves out into groups, roughly based on our room assignments, though not entirely. Among my cronies were Dean, a Vermont kid who had never met a Jew before and was surprised that I didn’t have horns; Rich, a red-headed guy from out West who had--as far as I could tell--been stoned since the day he found his first Bic lighter; and Don, a tough Italian kid (or the Ivy League equivalent of a tough Italian kid) from New York City.

The bunch of us were standing around the Flight Deck swapping stories and insults. (The Flight Deck was the dormwide designation for our particular corridor of the building. It was so called because on weekends it was generally five or six inches higher than the rest of the dormitory.)

These exchanges, though rough, are basically innocent. They’re a way of learning about one another, and incidentally, establishing the social pecking order for the year.

In any case, after Rich and Don had sparred for five minutes or so, discussing one another’s cleanliness and sexual proclivities, it was my turn. Don turned to me and said something about my incipient moustache and what it suggested about my masculinity.

Laughing, I turned to Don and said, “Your mother…”

I don’t know what I was going to say next. I might just have left it there, in fact. But I had no air to say anything else because I found that I had been gripped firmly by the throat, raised a good foot and a half in the air, and slammed against the cinderblock wall.

By Don. Whose bright red face as perhaps an inch from mine, wearing an expression of fury such as I had never seen on a human being before. Understand, I was almost a foot taller than Don, and outweighed him by a good 80 pounds. It made no difference to the raging maniac who had me by the throat.

“My mother,” he hissed, “is a saint!”

“I…” I gasped, as well as I could with an angry Italian kid cutting off my windpipe, “I’m sure she is…”

The grip was removed from my windpipe, I crashed to the ground gasping, and the door to Don’s room slammed shut with a building-shuddering crash!

I crawled back to my own dorm room, rubbing my throat and groaning.

MORAL: ALL mothers are saints. It is a good idea to remember that.

Happy Mothers Day to Risa, Frances and all the other Saints.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

A Matter of Taste

I haven’t quite made up my mind about cross-dressing.

(Boy, that came out wrong).

I’ve yet to make up my mind yet whether cross dressing is funny.

I know it’s supposed to be funny. Men dressing as women. Women dressing as men. Big yucks.

It’s been part of the comedian’s bag of tricks for hundreds of years. Shakespeare used the gag constantly, in part because men played all the women’s parts anyway. Opera is full of “trouser roles”, young male characters played by young women.

I don’t know, though. The guys of Monty Python’s Flying Circus would regularly dress up as frumpy middle-aged housewives (known as Pepperpots, for some reason).
Though the joke got old eventually, the Monty Python cast in drag was definitely funny.

(And, I have it on good authority at a six-foot-three-inch bearded guy playing a clarinet while wearing a blue evening gown is hysterical. Of course, I had a better figure back then.)

On the other hand, women dressed as men? Not so funny. Partially because there really isn’t a lot of male clothing that isn’t also worn by women. Generally, when women DO wear men’s clothes, the results are, well, kinda sexy.

Remember that scene in Bull Durham when Jenny Robinson wears a catcher’s gear and almost nothing else? (Sorry I can’t find a picture of it, but if you’ve seen the movie, it’s pretty unforgettable.)

A friend of mine who has studied these things claims that it’s all about status. When someone of a high status takes a lower status position, we think it’s funny. When someone of a low status position takes a higher status position, it isn’t funny. Since men still hold a higher status position in Western Civilization—she argues—seeing them dress as women is funny. When women dress as men, they’re taking a higher status position, and that just isn’t as funny.

My friend could be right.

On the other hand, Terry Jones dressed as a man or as a woman is pretty funny looking. Even when he’s wearing nothing at all.

On the other hand, Jenny Robinson is pretty good looking dressed as a woman or a man. Even, one would imagine, when she’s wearing nothing at all. (Although once again, sadly, photographic evidence would appear to be lacking).

What do you think? Is drag inherently funny? Or, like a lot of things, is it all in the context?

Monday, May 3, 2010

Yo La Tengo!

There’s no delicate way to put this: The New York Mets suck. They SUCK! They Suuuuuuuck!!!

I mean, stick a hose in them and you can use them to clean your carpet.

I don’t care if they DID win eight games in a row recently, they still suck. The New York Mets could win the World Series for the next three years running, and you would STILL have to say that, overall, they sucked.

Obviously, I am a long-time Mets fan.

While it’s true that the New York Mets—what was that word again? Oh yeah, SUCK-it’s also true that they are one of the funniest baseball teams that has ever existed.

Why is this? Watching someone try earnestly and fail is painful, even tragic. But at some point, it stops being painful and starts being funny. Eventually it becomes hysterical. If we stop and think about it, we probably feel bad about it. (We still laugh, but we feel bad about it.)

My usual position is that other people's pain isn't funny. But then there are Mets stories like this one:

Back in 1962, during the Mets first (and possibly most futile) season, ownership had stocked up on two kinds of players: Has-beens and never-weres. The 1962 Mets were a perfectly awful team. You could not have set out deliberately to create a team so misbegotten.

Playing center field for the Mets was an old-timer, Richie Ashburn—close to the end of his career, but still with some baseball skills. Richie Ashburn had a problem—Elio Chacon, the Mets shortstop.

You see, every time a batter would pop up a ball to short center field, Richie Ashburn would run for the ball. He then did exactly what he’d been taught to do since childhood: He shouted “I Got It! I Got It!” indicating that he could and would catch the ball.

Inevitably, right after Ashburn yelled “I got it!” he would be crashed into by Mets shortstop Chacon, who was running for the ball himself. The ball would land untouched in the grass, and the batter would usually end up on second base.

Ashburn was beside himself. What the hell was wrong with Chacon, anyway? Was he deaf?

No, Chacon wasn’t deaf. He was simply from Venezuela and had never learned to speak much English.

Ashburn sought out a bilingual teammate who agreed to act as intermediary. After talking it over with Chacon, the teammate told Ashburn that the Spanish phrase for “I got it” was “Yo La Tengo!” If Ashburn shouted that, the teammate said, Chacon would happily give way.

Dubious, Ashburn approached Chacon. “Yo La Tengo?” he asked.

“Si, si,” nodded Chacon, who had been feeling a bit frustrated himself. “Yo La Tengo!”

It was only a few days later that another pop fly was floated out to center field. Ashburn, trotting for the ball, yelled out. “Yo La Tengo! Yo La Tengo!” Chacon, who had been headed for the ball, pulled up short and gestured for Ashburn to make the catch.

Ashburn relaxed and settled under the ball. Only to be crashed into by Mets left fielder Frank Thomas, who didn’t speak Spanish.

The ball landed for a double.

Ashburn did the only sensible thing—he quit baseball at the end of the year.

(By the way, the alternative rock band “Yo La Tengo!” got their name from the incident. I don’t know why they picked the name, but their music is pretty cool.)

Saturday, May 1, 2010

No Rhyme, No Reason

Last Thursday was “Poem in Your Pocket Day”.

It’s potentially a cute idea: Walk around all day with your favorite poem in your pocket. Then, share that poem with people throughout the day.

Wellllll….my first problem was that I misheard the celebration as “Poet in Your Pocket Day.” I visualized cramming Maya Angelou in the pocket of my brown tweed jacket (my “author” jacket) and felt that neither she nor I would be well served by the experience.

When I got that straightened out, I began wondering about just how many times I would be able to use the phrase, “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” without getting slapped in the face.

Answer: Three.

As I cast about looking for a poem to carry around (I picked “Jabberwocky”), it occurred to me that there isn’t a lot of funny poetry.

If you think about it, most classical poetry is pretty grim stuff--all about Love and Death, the Death of Love and the Death of One’s Love. Donne, Shelley, Keats--none of these are likely to tickle one’s funny bone.

Even so-called “Light Verse” isn’t particularly funny. The poetry of Edgar A. Guest and Company usually the covers the same material as the Classical Poets--only with one-third fewer calories.

For the most part, even the wittiest of the so-called funny poets aren’t laugh out loud funny. Lewis Carroll, Shel Silverstein and even Doctor Seuss are mostly whimsical. (I suffered from whimsy for years until I stopped eating radishes.)

I don’t know enough about modern poetry to draw many conclusions about it. It does seem to be more of the same, though.

(Oh, I also contend that free verse is CHEATING!!! I see a bunch of poets sitting around whining “Rhyming is too haaaard! Why does it have to rhyyyyme?

Because it’s a POEM, that’s why! You bunch of big babies!!!)

In any case, there is one notable exception to my assertion that there are no funny poems--and several of you have already started composing emails to point it out:

Yes, limericks are funny. Or at any rate they can be funny. The best of them are clever AND funny, like a well told joke. This is first one I remember:

There once was a lady from Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

Limericks can even be educational:

There once was a lady named Bright
Whose speed was far faster than light.
She departed one day
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.

For a while, we amused ourselves with meta-limericks:

There once was a man from Peru
Whose limerick ended line two.

Which was followed by:

There once was a man from Verdonne

And finally:


But the original format is best, I think.

With that in mind, it’s time for the first ever Awkward Silence CONTEST:

I’m going to provide the first line of three limericks. You guys write the rest. Post your results as comments, and whoever’s limerick is the best will win a PRIZE worth virtually nothing at all, and bragging rights for all the world to see.

Contest rules: None to speak of. Friends and relations of the Awkward Silence’s Fearless Leader are encouraged to enter, as are total strangers and sworn blood-enemies.

Multiple entries are encouraged. (wink)

Entries must be timestamped by 11:59 pm on May 31. Try to keep the limericks relatively clean. Winner will be selected by Fearless Leader--arm twisting and lobbying are encouraged.

Sound good? Here we go:

1) A small boy confined to his room


2) The latest computer software


3) The Lone Ranger riding on Silver