If we’re going to succeed in life, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, we must “laugh often and much.” One guy who helps me succeed is Jamie Smith, creator of the cartoon “Nuggets” in the Sunday section of the News Miner. He’s a humor proselytizer par excellence, and we’ve had some entertaining discussions about what makes something seem funny. For example, Jaime recently shared a website, http://GarfieldMinusGarfield.tumblr.com, that illustrates the intangibility of humor by excising Garfield his own comic strips. The remaining images of Jon Arbuckle, Garfield’s owner, talking to himself are amusing in a strange and disconcerting way, but is it funny?
The origin of our ubiquitous term, “fun,” according to the American Heritage Dictionary, may come “from ‘fon,’ to make a fool of” in Middle English, which thrived between the arrivals of William the Conqueror in 1066 and William Caxton, the first English-language printer in the 1470s. The Online Etymological Dictionary says “funny” began to mean “humorous” in England in 1756, and “strange, odd” in the Southern U.S. in 1806. “Funnies,” as in “the section of a newspaper containing comic strips,” began in the U.S. in 1852, and remains peculiar to America.
Wikipedia has an entertaining article titled “Inherently Funny Word” that describes what makes a word or phrase funny. It begins, “The belief that certain words are inherently funny, for reasons ranging from onomatopoeia to phonosemantics to sexual innuendo, is widespread among people who work in humor. Opinions vary widely regarding this idea; there is no generally agreed-upon list of funny words and some people consider it to be a meaningless or nonsensical concept.” Nevertheless, many actors and writers believe “consonant explosives” like p, b, t, d, k and g are humorous due to their sudden or explosive pronunciation.
The belief that “k’ is a particularly funny letter is widespread. The leading American linguist and columnist H.L. Mencken wrote in 1948 that “K, for some occult reason, has always to the oafish risibles of the American plain people,” and went on to list “joke towns” like Kokomo, Kankakee, Squeedunk, and Hoboken. Perhaps that’s part of our local allure, since Fairbanks and Alaska both include Ks.
Jack Benny, one of the best comedians of the 20th century, owned a bunch of Ks. He was born Benjamin Kubelsky in 1894 to immigrant parents who wanted him to be a violin virtuoso. After expulsion from high school for indifference, he plied his violin for vaudeville theatres. In 1911 he met the Marx Brothers, who wanted Benny to tour with them as accompanist, but Benny’s mom refused. Benny instead partnered with a vaudeville pianist but was pressured to change his name by a serious violinist named Jan Kubelik, who feared Benny’s occasionally comic performance would damage his career. So Ben Kubelsky became Ben K. Benny, which resulted in another lawyer threatening a lawsuit on behalf of a comedic violinist named Ben Bernie. Benny was a sailor during WWI, so he added Jack to Benny, and about then his comedy surpassed his music, and his career took off.
Old comedians’ humor rarely holds up well over time, but Benny’s old radio and television shows remain hilarious. Benny’s much-beloved stage character was cheap, stingy, petty, vain, and a complete reversal of his true personality that viewers found charming. He also employed the mythic “Rule of Three,” which is described in www.humorpower.com this way: “The first two items in the triplet set the pattern, and the third item breaks the pattern. Breaking the pattern heightens the tension and creates the surprise, usually resulting in laughter.
For example, his March 28, 1948 show featured a gag where Benny’s character is mugged. “Don’t make a move; this is a stickup,” the mugger says. “Your money or your life.” The audience knows Benny as a true skinflint, and when he pauses, mulling it over, they begin laughing. The mugger then says, “Look bud! I said your money or your life.” Benny immediately snaps back “I’m thinking it over!” and the audience roared. The joke worked because of Benny’s miserly persona, his sense of timing, and the Power of Three.
It’s funny how 54,000 borough residents have active library cards and some still haven’t heard about the Power of Seven: seven DVDs can be borrowed from your library for seven days for free. You can always lighten your load with humor from your library, and try out a Jack Benny film. As the poet e.e. cummings wrote, “The most wasted of all days is one without laughter.”Share on Facebook