It’s six weeks. Oh wait, I’m sorry – that box I had in the freezer actually expired all the way back in August of last year, so really the shelf life should be…
Ok, so maybe I won’t be next in line to take over for Seth Meyers once he gets Jimmy’s new gig – then again I’m not Carson Daly so that’s fine with me – but as always, there’s a madness behind the method. On to today’s topic then: Why is humor, especially literary humor, so transient and short-lived? And what does the limited shelf life of a ‘good joke’ (compared to, say, a dramatic monologue) suggest about the linguistic and literary cultures we inherit and inhabit?
Maybe it’s not exactly a truism, but it’s difficult to deny that tragedies and tragic novels have been more celebrated in (Anglophone) literary history than their lighter, more comic counterparts. Ask anyone for the names of five Shakespeare plays, for instance, and you’d probably have to dig around before someone blurts out “Measure for Measure!” or “All’s Well That Ends Well!” And how many people do you know who have told you a joke – not a serious matter made funny, but rather a deliberate attempt at wit or crassness – from something they read the other day?
Whatever number you think of, you can add one on my behalf, because I’ve been reading Tristram Shandy (1759) – the Oxford World Classics edition – by Laurence Sterne and it is, by all accounts, a comic novel. I haven’t finished it yet, but even at a third of the way through I’m enjoying the narrative and its convoluted, prosaic style. Tristram Shandy is about a gentleman who recounts his life all the way from prior to his birth to (I’m guessing) adult life, and interspersed throughout is a lengthy of satire of anything and everything related to contemporary European life, from reading and scholarship to the lengths of noses and the importance of “hobby-horses.” Yes, it is one of those novels.
And yet it’s very hard, even with a relatively trained pair of eyes, to laugh outright when reading Sterne’s work. For all its satire and verbal majesty, Shandy is also one of those books that’s double the length of what it really is. It’s not because the plot is especially long (though the title character is absolutely long-winded), but rather because there are so so many damn footnotes to trawl through. You can’t even get through a one-paragraph long chapter (and there are many such “chapters” in the novel) without running into a footnote!
The issue I’m really trying to probe at, then, is this: What is it about comedy that makes it more short-lived in the popular literary consciousness than its counterpart, tragedy? If everyone laughs and cries, then why is it easier for us to tear up at a 17th-century tragedy as opposed to a 17th-century joke?
Here’s a short passage from the very beginning of Shandy (to be fair there are much better examples later in the book), in which Sterne deliberately cuts up a conversation across chapters:
Pray my Dear, quoth my mother, have you not forgot to wind up the clock?—Good G..! cried my father, making an exclamation, but taking care to moderate his voice at the same time,—Did ever woman, since the creation of the world, interrupt a man with such a silly question? Pray, what was your father saying?—Nothing.
[Chapter I ends here and Chapter II begins after.]
—Then, positively, there is nothing in the question that I can see, either good or bad.—Then, let me tell you, Sir, it was a very unseasonable question at least,—because it scattered and dispersed the animal spirits, whose business it was to have escorted and gone hand in hand with the Homunculus, and conducted him safe to the place destined for his reception.
Part of the joke here, I think, lies in Sterne’s disjunction in the dialogue, which breaks up the reading experience pretty forcefully, and part of it lies in the absurdity of Shandy senior’s exaggerated response to Mrs. Shandy’s innocuous question.
(Believe me, I hate dissecting jokes too.) Still, I find myself scratching my head for a minute or two before giving some kind of forced chuckle or half-hearted smirk.
I guess one tentative answer to the trouble I’ve been having with ‘literary humor’ is that whatever we consider to be ‘good humor’ is ultimately a product of social context more than it is an extension of the human condition or ‘inner human experience.’ Tragedy and pathos at their best evoke deep physical and psychological responses within us, and the range of tragic experience has remained narrow enough – in the sense that certain tragic consequences, like the death of a loved one or severe physical/mental pain – over time for us to appreciate it in any context. On the other hand, nearly every ‘good’ joke seems to have a shelf life reliant on the culture that produces it: etymologies, slang, innuendos, race and gender attitudes, political views, etc. And since these aspects of human and social experience are far more volatile, we learn to search for fresher ideas for comedy and laughs.
I realize, as I close this, that I’ve been painting this whole picture with brushstrokes that are far too broad to be really definitive. But maybe I shouldn’t have eaten that last Chocolate Eclair bar after all!