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

Friday, June 25, 2010

Able with A Cane

A few months ago, I had to use a cane for a while.

It was nothing serious, but I had to use a cane for a while.

(Oh, okay. I had hurt my back. Which meant I had to lever myself out of my armchair, which hurt my right hip. And then, because I had to favor my right hip, I wrenched my left knee. And from there....I HAD TO USE A CANE, OKAY?)


I learned a number of interesting things during this time walking with a cane.

1) When you walk up a flight of stairs while using a cane, your pants fall down.

I don't know exactly why, but some unique configuration of physics and inertia combine, when one is struggling up a flight of steps, to pull your trousers down towards your ankles.

This is tremendously embarrassing--not to say revealing. But it does explain why elderly men always pull their pants up until the waistband reaches their armpits. It's so their pants don't fall down while walking up a flight of steps.

2) It is nearly impossible to pull your pants up with one hand.

Go on, try it. Stand up, adjust your trousers so that they’re somewhere around your hips—or perhaps just a bit further south. Now, put one hand on top of your head so you’re not tempted to cheat. Using JUST THE OTHER HAND, try to pull your pants up around your waist.

Can’t do it, can you?

(Not only that, but look at the spectacle you’ve made of yourself. I hope no one was watching.)

3) It is walking up a flight of stairs, with a cane, with your pants falling down around your ankles, that you find out who your friends really are.

Paul Murphy is NOT my friend.

On the other hand, a very nice man named Raul IS. I met him on the steps of the New York Public Library.

Friday, June 11, 2010

At Long Last....the Moose Joke!

So what exactly IS the moose joke? And why doesn't it get a laugh?

In answer to literally several requests (mostly from Jon M.) I'll explore this burning issue, which illuminates several points about humor.

Once upon a time, back when Radio Was King, there was a wonderful comic by the name of Jack Benny. If you don't know Jack Benny, please stop reading, do an Internet search and listen to three or four of his radio programs. It's okay. We'll wait.

Jack Benny was a master comedian, even though he very rarely told jokes. In fact, his dialogue usually consisted of "Hmmm...." "But...." "You don't say?" and (when he got really excited) "Yipe!"

In fact, Jack was -- on the surface at least -- more a traditional straight man than a comic. EXCEPT that he had the greatest timing on the planet. As one of his contemporaries said, "Jack didn't say funny things. Jack said things funny."

In any case, Jack was also a very friendly fellow, and among his legion of friends were many comics and comic writers. One of them was a playwright and scriptwriter by the name of Norman Krasna. (Krasna is probably best known today as the scriptwriter for the movie White Christmas.)

"Hey, Kras," Benny said to him one day, "I thought of a great joke for my radio show: I need you like a moose needs a hat rack." And he waited.

"Well," Krasna said after a moment's thought. "It's funny. But it won't get a laugh on the radio."

"Why not?" Benny demanded.

Krasna explained that it was a "visual joke". The audience would have to think about the joke and draw a picture in its head before the joke would register.

It would take too long, he said, and the radio show would grind to a halt.

Benny disagreed. "The joke is funny," he said, "and I'm going to use it."

It should be noted that in addition to impeccable timing, Benny was known for his comic sense. Usually, if Benny thought a joke was funny, it was funny.

Not this time. The following Sunday during his regular radio broadcast, Benny turned to one of his co-stars and snapped, "I need you like a moose needs a hat rack!"

For one of the few times in his career, Jack Benny encountered The Awkward Silence. After a few moments (which must have seemed like an eternity) the show rumbled on.

A few days later, Krasna ran into Benny. "I told you so," he said.

No, Benny insisted, Krasna was still wrong. Benny had been standing too far away from the microphone. Or the he'd told the joke too slowly. Or SOMETHING. Benny would tell the joke the following week and get a huge laugh.

Uh-uh. The next show, Benny told the joke again, using every bit of his considerable comic talent. Nada. Nothing. Zippo. Crickets.

Krasna and Benny met again. Again, Krasna waited for capitulation. Again, Benny was stubborn. He was going to give the joke another chance. What Krasna didn't realize was that Benny had something else in mind, too.

That Sunday, for the third week in a row (which qualifies it as a running gag), Benny told the hat rack joke to dead silence.

Then he stepped out of character, turned to the audience and said OVER THE AIR: "I can't understand why that doesn't get a laugh. Three weeks I've been doing it and it's never gotten a laugh. Norman Krasna LOVED it!"

As a practical joke, it was virtually perfect. To Krasna, he was acknowledging his defeat on national radio. But as far as everyone else was concerned, it was Norman Krasna who had championed this painfully unfunny joke...and Krasna had no way to respond.

It didn't help that the national press took up the Jack Benny version, writing that Jack had kept telling the joke as a favor to his buddy Krasna. And when Benny cast Mel Blanc as "Norman Krasna" on a subsequent broadcast and had "Krasna" respond to the hat rack joke with a raucous peal of Woody Woodpecker's laughter.

Or that the hat rack joke was now got laughs every time Benny used it on the air (which he did for the rest of that season).

Lessons learned?

Visual jokes don't work in a live medium.


Don't mess with Jack Benny


Don't forget, Spider's Game continues on from the previous post.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Contest #2: Spider's Game

Q: If a priest is defrocked, what happens to a lawyer who is fired?
A: A lawyer is debriefed, of course!

That's the format for a punning game created by Spider Robinson. Spider is a pretty good science fiction writer with a REALLY good sense of humor. (See the previous blog entry "God is an Iron")

The game I call "Spider's Game" first appeared in one of his novels (Callahan's Lady, I believe). His characters reel off whole sequence of delightfully awful puns.

Now, I haven't got the book in front of me, but here are some other examples:

A statistician is demeaned.

A skunk is distinct.

A dressmaker is depleated.

A lazy person is diseased.

And two spectacularly bad puns:

A vegetable juice manufacturer is deviated.

A priest with the New York City Transit Authority receives disPennStation.

Well, that's the basis of our new contest: Create as many entries to Spider's Game as possible. There will be two prizes awarded this time around, one for the most valid entries, and one for the single worst (you know, best) pun.

Here are the rules (such as they are):

1) All entries are to be in the form "A(n) __________ is __________" All the descriptive words are to start with the prefixes "dis" or "de" and have to be real words.

2) Entries have to be a pun, rather than a real world example.

3) Only ONE ENTRY AT A TIME. Someone else has to post an entry before you can post a second entry. This is to encourage frequent posting, to prevent one person from hogging all the obvious entries, and to force return visits .

4) The contest will continue until the end of June 2010, or until there have been no new posts for 72 hours, whichever is later.

Friends and relatives are encouraged to enter, as are complete strangers. Decisions of Fearless Leader are (as usual) arbitrary and final.

Read, set, GO!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Bits of Business

I'm sorry that this post is a little late. I hadn't intended that the Memorial Day weekend be a vacation for this blog...just lucky I guess.

Some business and observations that have piled up lately:

1) The winner of the Awkward Silence's Limerick Contest (which ended at the end of May) is the only person to enter: Dr J! Congratulations, DJ! You have shamed all the rest of the readers of this blog by writing...well, any limericks at all.

There is a prize for winning the first ever Awkward Silence contest!

From now on, the official award for all future contests will be called:
"The Dr J Award for Extreme Cleverness"!

That's right, Dr J will be immortalized in all future contests. That certainly worth waiting for, isn't it? (Hell, what do you expect when you win without any competition?)

2) Tipper and Al Gore are splitting up. I am trying my best not to descend into the gossip-fueled rubbernecking of this particular emotional train wreck. (Except to note that during the famous lip lock at the 2000 Democratic Convention, Tipper seemed a bit less than thrilled...)

However, it does remind me of a joke, which I suspect is actually a pretty valid analogy:

An elderly couple appear in divorce court, asking a judge to officially end their marriage. The judge looks over the documents, and then looks at the couple.

"I'm shocked to see people your age here at divorce court," says the judge. "Just how old are you, anyway?"

"I'm ninety-one," says the old man.

"I'm eighty-nine," responds the old woman.

"That's really amazing," says the judge. "And how long have you been married?"

"Seventy-one years," says the old man.

"Seventy-two," corrects the old woman.

"That's right," says the old man, "seventy-two years."

"You've been married for seventy-two years and you want a divorce NOW?" says the judge. "For Heaven's sake, why?"

"Because, Your Honor," says the old woman, "ENOUGH IS ENOUGH ALREADY!"

3) Time for me to start plugging Lunatic Fringe, New Jersey's Premiere Improv Comedy Troupe. As many of you know, I'm a founding member of the group, arguably New Jersey's oldest improv comedy group. (Not only have we been around for almost 14 years, but our average age is somewhere between 45 and death!)

Improv is a bizarre form of stream-of-consciousness comedy. I'll write more about it in a future post, but let's just say our tagline is "Comedy Without A Script and Without a Net."

Lunatic Fringe is wrapping up or 13th season with our final appearance of the spring at Pianos Bar and Grill in Bloomfield, New Jersey on Saturday, June 12. Tickets are only $12, and well worth it. Make your reservations at (973) 429-1527