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Gene Weingarten: Humor can easily get lost in translation

WASHINGTON — This just in:

I teach a class in English as a second language. My students struggle with humor, trying to be funny in a language that is not their own. Can you help them by outlining the basic forms and structures of English-language comedy?

Sarah Hopson

Dear Sarah — It is indeed a tragedy when the great gift of humor is denied to people merely because of a language barrier. Fortunately, you came to the right place! By deconstructing some timeless jokes, I shall create a brief tutorial in American Humor Appreciation so your students can experience the same unbridled joy as the rest of us.

"Take my wife . . . please."

This classic Henny Youngman formulation deftly combines the rhetorical devices of irony and surprise: At first, Henny appears to be referencing his wife as an example of something; then, we learn that he is instead offering the lady to anyone who will take her off his hands.

We laugh, but why?

Because in Henny's comedic dilemma, we recognize a basic truth: Over time, love often becomes a straitjacket. As the physical imperfections of aging inexorably take their toll, sexual desire diminishes; meanwhile, increased familiarity with a person will sometimes create an emotional numbness, leading to a poisonous domestic environment that can scar us so badly we are never again capable of love, trust or the capacity for true happiness.

Okay, possibly that joke might not have been a great example of unbridled joy. Fortunately, I've got a million of 'em.

"Did you hear about the constipated mathematician? He worked it out with a pencil!"

"Worked it out!" See, that's hilarious! Okay, it's true that on a deeper level this is funny because in this amusingly exaggerated battle between a man and his lower intestinal tract, we recognize the fundamental absurdity of our existence: Life is an inevitably fatal disease. Sooner or later, our own bodies will assassinate us.

"Q: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Only one, but the lightbulb really has to want to change!"

Shrinks are funny! Zey all talk like Freud, mit faintly evil Cherman accents. Though the message of this joke is a bit disturbing, to tell the truth, it certifies a central experience of psychiatry: Patients frequently resist making the very alterations of behavior that will bring them relief. We are the proverbial man who keeps hitting himself in the head with a hammer; unlike that man, though, we are not doing it because it feels so good when we stop. We are doing it because, in one of life's cruelest perversities, we dread pain, yet crave it.

Hmm. I think we have to dumb this down a little. Okay, a lot.

"Q: What time is it when you have to go to the dentist? A: Tooth hurty!"

Now we're cooking! Pure, innocent pun fun! This will just slay your average 4-year-old. To adults, though, the pun genre is most valued when it elicits not a laugh but a wince. It's why puns are called "groaners." They are actually designed to inflict a small degree of pain, which we find satisfying. Why? Because we are a hostile species. The impulse to pun is the same as the impulse to wage war: to annihilate.

Last, consider what is perhaps the prototype for all jokes in the English language:

"Why did the chicken cross the road? To get to the other side!"

This classic joke uses the twinned tools of absurdity and non sequitur to amusingly lay bare the final paradox of life. The central comfort of our existence — the notion that life has meaning — is a lie, a pathetic self-deception to which we cling because to confront the truth would be to descend into madness. The chicken crosses the road for the same "reason" we walk through our days on Earth: no reason at all.

You're welcome, Sarah.

Gene Weingarten can be reached at

Gene Weingarten: Humor can easily get lost in translation 06/12/10 [Last modified: Friday, June 11, 2010 2:34pm]
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