Sunday Snippet: E.B. White (1899-1985) on Humor

“Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”

Even though I make my living today as a professional writer, it sure feels like I read a lot more books as a child and youth than I do today. And as a small child, one of my favorite books had to be Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White. It’s a heart-warming tale of “some pig” who, through the help of his barnyard companions, becomes a “terrific” and “radiant” sensation throughout the land. And he survives the winter too.

It is through children’s stories like Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little that the world came to know E.B. White, but he was also a regular contributor to The New Yorker magazine, among many other works and publications. In this way, even though he may be best known for his work geared toward the younger set, E.B. White was also a man who offered much wisdom and insight to adults.

We all like a good joke, but sometimes we just don’t “get it.” Maybe the joke references people, places or things that are unfamiliar to us. Maybe the joke is making a tangential reference that isn’t immediately clear. Whatever the case, what we do know is that as soon as someone has to explain the joke, it loses a lot of its weight.

It’s just not as funny anymore and that’s essentially what the late Mr. White is telling us in the quote above. We can dissect the frog, as it were, to gain a better understanding, but the frog really ceases to be the frog that we think we know. It’s not hopping around on a swamp and eating flies anymore, because it’s been preserved in formaldehyde and it’s been split open for examination.

Does this mean that we should just leave well enough alone? Does this mean that if a friend doesn’t understand a joke that we shouldn’t try to bring him or her up to speed? For my part, even though “the thing dies” and the innards can be “discouraging,” there is a great value to be had through literary analysis that extends far beyond the original work. And this same kind of philosophy applies to comedy. You might “ruin” one joke by explaining it, but it means that this person is more likely to “get” a greater number of future jokes as a result. I’d say that’s a good trade.

I suppose there’s a reason why the majority of the writing that I do is not only non-fiction, but it is largely informational in nature. I may include the odd joke or pun, but my writing is largely straightforward. While there are challenges associated with technical writing and creative copywriting, I’d argue that comedy is one of the most difficult disciplines because it is so difficult to explain.

And this is why I have great respect for guys like Rodney Dangerfield and George Carlin. It’s not enough to be funny every once in a while; you have to be consistently funny with jokes that don’t need to be dissected to be understood. If I have to ask why it’s funny, it probably won’t be all that funny anymore.