Max Beerbohm once declined to be lured into a hike to the Summit of a Swiss Alp. "Put me down," he said firmly, "as an anti-climb Max."
From page 40 of the Puns section in Jokes, Riddles, and Puns which in spite of (or maybe because of) the title is the middle section of the book.
My dad got us that book in 1962, when I was 7. His inscription said: To Marlene, Lanny, and Peter - The joke's on me. I have that book now. It's something I took out of the old house before my parents sold it. The book is a constant reminder of my dad and how important humor was to him. Here's another from the book, our favorite. It's from the last page of the Riddles section and is #2 in a series about the Bigger family.
Q: Mrs. Bigger had a baby. Now who was bigger?
A: The baby, because he was a little bigger.
As much as I liked jokes of this sort, at some point in my life, I think it was during high school but maybe it was college or even later, I segued mainly from telling canned jokes to mostly trying for spontaneous humor, reacting to the situation, whatever it was. I don't know what drove that exactly, but I'm guessing it came out of playing with friends. Below are a bunch of snippets to illustrate.
* * *
This is before high school. How much before I can't remember. David Sterman was my best friend and his family had a second home in New Jersey that I went to on occasion along with them. On the return of one of those trips David and I are sitting in the back seat of their car, with David's mom and dad up front. His dad is driving. We are laughing uncontrollably. We did that fairly often. Apparently we were getting on the nerves of David's Dad. He told us to stop, but we wouldn't or couldn't. So he made us count the license plate numbers of the cars ahead of us. My parents never did that with us.
* * *
This is either junior or senior year in high school. I'm not sure which. We're on the math team and we took a course called math team workshop, which had its own weirdness and humor built in, from the antics of Harold Rosenthal, the former chair of the math department, to Feuerstein claiming he had a proof of The Butterfly Theorem, only he didn't. Mr. Conrad was the coach. He told us if we didn't know the answer to a question to write eight over five pi. (I'm spelling it out here. We were supposed to write it in symbols.) Not surprisingly, at a math meet there is a problem I can't get so I follow instructions, or so I thought. Afterward Mr. Conrad gives me some grief, not because I didn't get the problem but because I wrote eight fifths pi.
* * *
Now it's definitely senior year in high school. I'm playing on the tennis team, first doubles with my partner Jimmy Kraft. And I'm driving him bonkers because in the middle of a match I'm singing to myself the jingle from the Diet-Rite Cola Commercial.
People who don't need it, drink it.
Folks not on a diet, try it.
Everybody likes it...Diet-Rite Cola.
Everybody likes it...Diet-Rite Cola.
Everybody likes - and you know why?
Cause it tastes so good.
Kraftella thought this was a distraction, which is why it was annoying him. But I have an inner need to keep singing it, a way to stay in the point. The second line of the ditty grabbed me. As a result, the rest did too.
* * *
This one is probably senior year too. I am with some friends from the Program Office (possibly Leslie and Margot, maybe the Grooper as well) and one or two teachers (one was definitely Mr. Sarrel) and they've decided to go to Stratford to see a play by Shakespeare. On the drive up we pass a pickup truck that has a bunch of tires in the cargo area. I say aloud, "I wonder if that driver is tired." My Sarrel responds, "Oh, Lanny!" His response was appropriate. It was a terrible joke, with no cleverness to it at all. But it is one I remember telling, with it clearly situational, and evidently I didn't care about making a fool of myself in the presence of an adult, something that seems particularly important for developing a sense of humor.
* * *
This one may be both junior and and senior years. There were several commercials on TV that were for the NYC metropolitan area only. One of those was for a place that sold appliances called JGE. In the commercial the tagline was - What's the story Jerry? Then Jerry would tell you how he can get the appliance for you at the wholesale price. A different one of these was for Savings Bank Life Insurance. The tagline there was - No dice Nevada, you can't buy SBLI. Somehow Billy Seiden and I internalized the No dice Nevada part and used the line quite a lot when talking with each other. (For a while we were very good friends.) Why this line was appealing, I can't say. But there is no doubt that we glommed onto it.
* * *
I could go on. Instead I want to switch to the present. Quite often now when a friend writes something - a post in Facebook or an email message, for example - I get a feeling inside me that I need to say something clever in response. Sometimes I act on that feeling. Other times I let it pass, especially when I sense that what I've come up with may cause regret after the fact. So the feeling is there quite often, even more frequently than I express it. I have no doubt that the origin of the feeling can be found in the elements sketched above, though how much of it is nature and how much is nurture I really don't know. I do sense my father in me. Every time this feeling arises I am reminded of my dad.
I wonder how many other people have something like this as part of their personality. We all repeated jokes we were told as kids, but I'm guessing that not everyone moved onto situational humor and the improvisation that goes with it, after they "graduated" from the joke telling. While there are some who are quite at ease engaging in friendly banter with people they know very well, which indicates they have the wherewithal to perform situational humor, they nevertheless wouldn't dream of trying out anything like that with people who are only remote acquaintances. For me, I do it with a broader audience. This way, I get a lot of practice.
Apparently there is some connection between humor and creativity, thought the research reported in the piece at the link is about people viewing the humor generated by somebody else and that making them more creative, while above I've been talking about generating humor on a situational basis. I wonder if that too has been studied. This piece suggests yes, but the author appears to be a consultant, and it is unclear to me how much science there is behind what he has to say.
So now I'm just going to assume it is true and assume further that in society as a whole we want to produce more creative people. Given that, we should want kids to learn to make situational humor from the elements they find then and there. Where might they learn this? Are they getting lessons in situational humor now, either in school or on the outside?
My sense is that the accountability movement one associates with standardized testing and No Child Left Behind is particularly humorless. Then the focus on improving tests scores may be turning kids into dullards. What a horrible punchline.