Author’s Note:  This is an old blog entry I wrote for another site.  I like it, so I’m posting it again.  It is from roughly three years ago.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, I have worked in the field of comedy my entire adult life.  I have devoted countless hours to the analysis, editing, and ultimate destruction of all things humor related.  I’ve spent so much time dealing with comedy in my professional life that it has left me almost devoid of humor in my private life.  I always say that people who meet me in real life first then see me on stage are always shocked, whereas people who see me on stage first then meet me in real life are always disappointed.  Such is my lot in life.

There are different types of funny people.  As the Jerry Lewis character George Fawkes so eloquently and succinctly states in the movie Funny Bones, “There are two types of funny people:  one tells funny, the other is funny.”  The line he delivers immediately after this statement to his son, played by Oliver Platt, is one of the most soul-crushing moments ever committed to film.  I won’t ruin it here.  While I won’t presume to claim I can make people laugh, I will say that I have made a career of it.  During that career, I’ve certainly leaned hard toward the “tells funny” side of things.  I can fake being funny well enough after years of experience, but it’s not my forte.

I’m a “joke man” as George Fawkes would say.  It fits my personality.  I break things down and come up with words that are funny rather than being a person who evokes laughter simply by being myself.  I’m cerebral and more than a little stand-offish as a person, and I don’t make friends easily.  People do not like me.  I have to develop strong material or I die on stage.  I have to be able to make people laugh in spite of me.  It’s a tough way to play, but it’s who I am and I can’t deny it.  Thus, I have to spend a lot of time picking things apart to make sure that material is perfect. This has led to a lifetime of playing with words to figure out why some combinations work and others don’t–and why some combinations work for only some people, and others work for everyone, and why some people can get away with certain kinds of humor, etc.  I could sit and talk about it endlessly, and there aren’t many things about which I actually like to talk.

I have two kids.    It’s early to make an informed judgment, but I think they’re funny.  My son is six and my daughter is three, and they are both still at the stage where they sound like they are being translated into English from another language.  They are also just reaching the point where they understand that humor can be a choice, and they’re attempting to tell jokes.  My son in particular is trying to hone this skill, and it is a carnival of unintentionally hilarious intentional hilarity.  I will provide the transcript–verbatim–of his attempt to tell a classic “kid” joke that you will all recognize.  We’ll get to that in a moment.

First, it should be noted that he is always attempting to build structure in his jokes.  He is following patterns because he understands that these patterns exist, but he has no real grasp of how they function or how they serve to support the jokes themselves.  For instance, he begins all jokes with “Knock, knock.”  I don’t mean he tells only knock knock jokes, I mean that he begins all jokes with “Knock, knock.”  For example:

Isaac:  Knock, knock.

Me:  Who’s there?

Isaac:  Why did the chicken cross the road?

He simply believes that “Knock knock” is a way to signify “hilarity to follow.”  This leads to some pretty high concept stuff.  For instance, this is one of my favorite dinner table exchanges:

Isaac:  Knock, knock.

Me:  Who’s there?

Isaac:  A bunch of cats slip on some peanut butter.

Me:  I love that you indicate it’s a joke with “knock knock,” but then you just describe sight gags.

Isaac:  YOU’RE A SIGHT GAG!

It should be noted that he shouted that last sentence at the top of his lungs while shoving his finger in my face.  There was not the slightest hint of irony, just absolute commitment.

One of my favorite theories of humor is that we laugh when we’re confronted with too much truth all at once.  The interesting thing about this is that it works in different ways for different people.  Some people are able to intentionally reveal a great deal of truth about the the world around them.  Others inadvertently reveal too much truth about themselves.  Some can do both.  Some can control it, others can’t.  Some we laugh with, some we laugh at.

Another theory is that all humor begins with the breaking of a routine.  Almost every kid who speaks English has at one point tested this theory with the classic Banana/Orange joke, which begins by establishing a routine, then intentionally breaking it and calling attention to the audiences violated expectations.  Ironically, my son’s failed attempt to tell me this joke inadvertently reinforced the very trope that made it a classic in the first place.  Behold, unintentional comedic brilliance:

Isaac:  Knock, knock.

Me:  Who’s there?

Isaac:  Banana.

Me:  Banana who?

Isaac:  Knock, knock.

Me:  Who’s there?

Isaac:  Banana.

Me:  Banana who?

Isaac:  Knock, knock.

Me:  Who’s there?

Isaac:  Banana.

Me:  Banana who?

Isaac:  Knock, knock.

Me:  Who’s there?

Isaac:  Orange.

Me:  Orange who?

Isaac:  Banana you glad I didn’t say orange?

Strangely, this flawed version of this classic joke is perfect on so many levels.  The amount of truth that assaulted my brain as he uttered that last line, the benign violation of my expectations, and the breaking not only of the pattern present in his telling but also that of my entire history with the joke made this one of the most brilliant comedic moments I’ve experienced.   In some kind of quantum paradox, it was simultaneously the best and worst joke I have ever heard…and that’s why comedy is interesting.