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

Monday, January 31, 2011

Q is for Quietus

I haven’t posted in a while: 2010 was a bad, bad year, and this blog was a minor casualty.

It all went downhill after my 50th birthday in April—which as actually pretty cool. I suffered from minor but persistent health problems, as well as major but persistent professional problems, and I had to say goodbye to a couple of people I really wasn’t ready to say goodbye to.

Anyway, despite the implication in Hamlet’s soliloquy (and my own dim memories of 11th grade English) ‘quietus’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘goodbye’ or ‘exit’. It also means “a final settlement” or “the end of an argument.” To wit:
Ray Bradbury, SF author par excellence tells the following story:

“A horrible little boy came up to me one day and said: ‘You know your book The Martian Chronicles?’

I said: ‘Yes’?

He said, ‘You know where you have Deimos [one of the Martian moons] rising in the East?’

I said, ‘Yes.’

He said, ‘Nope.’

So I hit him.


Now THAT, friends, is quietus.

The cutting remark that leaves no room for a snappy comeback. The sharp observation that completely ends the argument. The conversational climax that leaves no room for a coda. These bring quietus.

Quietus is the sort of thing that leaves no room for response. And, of course, that results in an Awkward Silence.

Lawyers are lectured at some length on the importance of recognizing WHEN an argument is over…that is, when to stop asking questions. She Whom It Would Be Well Advised to Consult Before Making Any Major Decisions tells the following story about a lawyer who should have realized when to shut up:

The defense attorney had the witness on the ropes: “So you claim that my client grabbed the victim, shook him violently, and bit his nose clean off?”

“That’s right,” said the witness.

“Did you actually see my client grab the victim?” demanded the attorney.

“No,” said the witness.

“Did you see my client shake the victim?” roared the attorney.

“No, I didn’t” said the witness.

“Did you in fact see my client bite of the victim’s nose?” shrieked the attorney.

“No, I did not,” said the witness.

Now a smart attorney would have known to stop there. Quietus. End of argument. But the attorney pressed his luck:

“If all that is true,” demanded the attorney, “then how do you know my client bit the victim’s nose off at all?”

“Because,” snapped the witness, “I saw him spit it out!”


And then there is the following. It was voted the funniest joke in the world (no, really) as part of the LaughLab project and appears to have been created in a slightly different form by Spike Milligan for The Goon Show.

Two hunters are out in the woods, when suddenly one of them grabs his chest, groans, and collapses. His buddy whips out his cell phone and dials 9-1-1.

“Hello,” says a crisp, competent voice on the other end.

“Listen,” says the hunter. “It’s my friend. He’s dead! What can I do?”

“Calm down,” says the operator. “I can help. First, let’s make sure he’s really dead.”

There is a pause. Then a gunshot is heard. The hunter comes back to the phone.

“Okay,” he says. “Now what?”