Humor Gets The Last Laugh
BOSTON — If your little dog can write his name in ketchup, or walk backward and say "www.woof.com," be sure to contact Susan Sheehan right away.
Ms. Sheehan is David Letterman's "stupid pet trick" coordinator and always on the prowl for pets capable of doing oddball tricks on the "Late Show."
According to some humor experts in the United States, such zany fun is part of a spreading wave of comedy, possibly adding up to a golden age of American humor.
More laughter is sounding these days, they say, for two main reasons: It is a healthy reaction to the cumulative frustrations of demanding, often stressful daily lives; and the Internet, that rocket purveyor of attitude and information, can now spread the same jokes coast to coast in an instant.
The economy may be booming on Wall Street, but frustrated folks on Main Street know personal bankruptcies are at an all-time high; corporations are downsizing; the gap between rich and poor is growing wider; technology in daily life is on overload; and Reeboks for trendy teens can cost $125 a pop.
Dogs may bark under such stress, but many humans tell jokes.
"We've had more free time and more media to convey humor," says Raymond Lesser, co-editor of Funny Times in Cleveland, a newspaper with a circulation of 50,000. "But if it is a golden age of humor," he says, "maybe it's a golden age of frustration, too."
Tens of thousands of jokes are now flowing back and forth on the Internet each day. David Letterman's wildly popular "Top Ten" list format is copied by everyone from academics to Zen Buddhists. Many hospitals use "humor carts" and "laugh lounges" to trigger healing laughter in patients.
Bill Maher's witty, unrehearsed jousting with guests on "Politically Incorrect" appears weeknights on ABC. Thirteen of today's top 20 shows on television are situation comedies (many starring stand-up comics); in l984 it was only five.
Southwest Airlines builds humor into its corporate culture for greater profits. The venerable Washington Post offers readers humor contests. Recently a clown, Bill Irwin from New York, won a prestigious MacArthur Foundation grant.
And that beloved disfranchised cartoon engineer "Dilbert" appears in 1,400 newspapers and sells books by the millions.
In short, humor has become as visible as green hair on Dennis Rodman.
"A golden age is exactly what is happening," says Fred Talbott, a professor of management communications at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, and a humorist who taught comedy writing to President Bush's speech writers.
"It's not just the humor professionals," he says, "but people everywhere are using it - corporate leaders, hospital staffs, elderly caregivers, you name it."
Although American humor may be forever subjective and regional, the media - TV, radio, movies, and now the Internet - have provided instant public access to all kinds of humor.
Some experts say this wide-ranging sharing of humor reveals nothing new about the nature of humor, but simply releases it from the former constraints of time and geography.
Comedy clubs, which faded in popularity as comedy on cable TV increased in the '80s, are popping up again, mainly in big cities and college towns. Many offer "alternative comedy" featuring young unknowns experimenting with storytelling and parodies.
"Humor doesn't have to be, and shouldn't be, left to those who use it by profession," says Joel Goodman, the founder and director of the Humor Project in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. "We want to reverse the ratio that has less than 1 percent of people as humor professionals," he says, "and bring the other 99 percent into humor."
Since 1977, Mr. Goodman has promoted humor as a practical, daily life resource in seminars, books, and an annual humor conference, first offered in 1986. Nearly 750,000 people have attended his programs.
"With TV, we saw that at the same moment people all over the country heard the same joke," he says. "The same thing is happening on the Internet now."
The avalanche of humor on the Internet flows through e-mail in a version of the old chain letter device. One jokester sends three light bulb jokes to six friends, who in turn send them to six more friends, and then to six more.
Numerous humor sites are flourishing, with at least one claiming that 500,000 readers a day stop there to read jokes.
"Every day I plug into the Internet," says Mr. Talbott, who teaches MBA students, "and get eight or 10 humor hits, mainly from former students. What this has done is bond us. It's clean humor and dynamic, and not the same old buy, sell, and look for product surfing. Instead, the Internet is transmitting spirit."
Loretta LaRoche, best known for blazingly funny one-liners on her PBS specials titled "The Joy of Stress," suggests humor is on the rise because people are overwhelmed by technology. Too many beepers, cell phones, fax machines, computers, digital cameras, and garage door openers, she says.
Ms. LaRoche recently gave a performance in Rhode Island on a snowy night, and 1,400 people showed up.
"They wanted to laugh," she says. "I think we've reached implosion. Every day people in technology have to learn more, and then what they learned has to be dropped. And there is an escalation of anger and violence, too, so people really need to laugh."
Don Nilsen - a professor of English linguistics at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., and executive secretary of the International Society for Humor Studies - agrees that frustration over technology is one of the reasons the use of humor is on the rise.
"But as humor is increasing, it is becoming darker and cynical," he says. "Look at Bart Simpson or 'Married ... With Children' or movies like 'Pulp Fiction' and 'Fargo.' All are very dark and cynical. No longer is there a single controlling metaphor that everybody lives by," he says. "And what used to be satire with a clear right and wrong has turned into gallows humor with a sense of absurdity."
Is this simply generation X with an attitude? Not necessarily.
One of the key uses of humor, say Goodman and other experts, is to help ease the impact of tragedy and disaster in society and individual lives. Jokes about the Oklahoma City bombing are an example.
"The bombing is so unconscionable, so painful, that some people can't handle it or approach it in any other way but humor," Goodman says. "We have to deal with it, and people everywhere use humor as a safety valve."
With the rise of political correctness - don't offend any group with old-fashioned ethnic or cultural jokes - a level of daring may have disappeared. "I think political correctness has done us a disservice," says Mr. Nilsen. "It was developed with the idea that people should be more tolerant of each other, but there is no movement around that is less tolerant."
Away from the risk of offending others is the need to lighten up in one's daily life. LaRoche suggests this is the place of the golden age of humor - daily life.
"How many people say, 'I always get in the slow line?' " she asks. The reason, she says, is that your daily schedule is known to a secret group determined to make your life miserable.
"They call people up and send them to places where you have to stand in line," she says. "Once they have upset you, they have accomplished their mission."