According to one academic definition, a joke is “a brief witty comment that adds entertainment or amusement.” However, while almost every adult enjoys at least one joke per day, “laughter” as an indication of humor is not a reliable marker. While some joke tellers consciously create comedy out of situations, it’s also possible for us to observe the impact of a joke without having an increased understanding of its meaning. Whether or not a joke makes you laugh, whether it makes you think or reflect, the impact it has on you depends on your understanding of how it affects you.
Many people wrongly assume that “what makes a joke funny” has to do with the ability to deliver a line that’s guaranteed to get a smile from the audience or to spot an inane comment. It’s not true. What actually makes a joke funny is the effect it has on the audience–how it makes them react, whether they laugh or cry, and whether their response is positive or negative. While a joke is only funny when it makes you laugh, the effect of it may extend far beyond that.
For instance, the joke that California’s legendary humorist Woody Allen often told, “What’s the difference between a tree and an oak tree?” elicited an immediate response from the audience: the sight of an oak tree sends shivers down anyone’s spine, while a tree is “adorable,” “suitable for children,” and “a lot of fun.” Woody Allen was not only using humor to describe what a tree looks like–he was also sending a broad message about nature and its inherent beauty.
The humor in that example comes from the act of describing something very specific. The specific quality of the image–its visual appeal–was used to categorize an idea and make it more palatable for a wide audience. The humor in that joke is not the joke-making ability of the comedian. It is the ability of the joke-maker to use his finely honed sense of humor to help communicate a basic, but important, truth.
On the other hand, consider the following piece by the late Larry Winget, Jr., which first appeared in his hilarious book, Come Back, Come Out: A Memorable Memoir. Winget writes about a Thanksgiving speech given by President George H.W. Bush at a public school in Texas: “I’d like to take a poll of the class and ask each man if he knows where the line is that you came from… Each one would say, ‘I don’t know, I came from the…’ ” To which Bush responds: “You know, yo mama jokes don’t work any more.”
While both presidents clearly understood the value of humor, the point still remains that some people find comfort in the use of irony as a means to communicate something other than what they really intended. This is why it’s so difficult to judge anyone as truly funny. But there is no doubt that the Croatian Medical Journal may be the new definition. So, what are you waiting for?