Killjoy

Killjoy

The joke never fails to amuse. That said, certain conditions must be met. The audience should be neither abstracted, unconscious, preverbal, or mentally deficient. They should also be present for the telling, but if non-present, must be linked via some form of communication, eg. television, telephone, radio, or internet. As a rule, the teller of the joke is alive, but if dead, still existing as a simulacrum, for instance as a recorded voice on tape, CD, or digital medium, or as a moving image in a film or video. The teller may also choose to convey the joke in print, in which case, as above, he or she may no longer be living when the joke is read, though to speak here of a “simulacrum” seems inappropriate, for reasons that are unclear but commonly accepted.

A child may sometimes tell the joke, but even if the delivery is adequate, the effort is only humored, as they say. Similarly, a robot or other automated system might generate the appropriate word-chain without the desired effect. No computer program exists yet that can recognize a successful joke, and while a doll or toy clown sometimes has a voice-box that mimics the human laugh, like canned laughter on TV, such responses are considered purely artificial. Were the joke to appear from out of a random set of letters, a box of scrabble tiles, a hostage-taker’s alphabet, a set of moveable type, or in a sequence composed by the proverbial typing monkeys, the result would likely be less funny than disturbing.

One virtue of the joke is its brevity; it can be told in one breath. However, being made up of several phrases, it could be conceivably delivered in separate parts, for example, with a pause in the middle, during which the teller might take a bite of a cracker, or sip his drink, only so long as to whet the listener’s interest, or break off momentarily to pick up his cell phone, perhaps to mute the ringer, but if expecting important news might suspend the telling a while longer, most likely to the detriment of the joke. Delay however could be exploited as a purpose in and of itself. A person of infinite means might choose to deliver one word of the joke each time he circled the earth; arriving by plane after each trip, he would convoke his listeners to hear the next word, or even, in order to extend the journey – but why? – the next letter or syllable, though no doubt the listeners would grow impatient, or would have heard the joke elsewhere by that time, since it is so popular, and popular jokes travel quickly, faster even than planes, in fact.

Everyone recalls the time and place they first heard the joke, and some may also remember what they were doing when, while perhaps rehearsing it in their mind, they felt a layer of meaning peel away to reveal some hidden truth, like a body lying in the weeds. So for each person it has a special meaning, utterly private, though everyone shares in a common recollection, as with the day of the (first) Kennedy assassination. No doubt Freud’s insight remains as true today as it did a hundred years ago: a joke is passed from person to person like news from the battlefront.

Of course the joke is funniest if never heard before. Like many jokes, though, it bears repeating, but not right away, unless the listener or listeners failed to hear it, due to some noise, momentary inattention, or other interruption, eg. the cat knocking over a vase, ice cream truck, or even, since the TV is always on, a joke on a sitcom, in which case the joke is interrupted by a joke, never auspicious. The passage of time may work to the benefit of the joke, which thereby reclaims some of its novelty, and a change of context can also warrant a retelling. One cannot, however, call one’s friends into an adjoining room to hear the joke again. On the other hand, one might tell the same joke to the identical group of friends some years later in the very same room. In this case, the retelling might carry a dividend of nostalgia, while the joke itself may have paled imperceptibly in humor, but not so much as to make it pleasureless. The forgetful and amnesiac would enjoy it perhaps most. Beyond a certain point, such as one’s own life-span, the joke will likely have no further value, and cultures of the future, whether living the horrors we expect or an unforeseen earthly paradise, probably would have no use for the joke, assuming it were comprehensible to them and passed down in a language they understood.

Do angels tell jokes? One hardly imagines them snickering, sniggering, snorting, or guffawing, all of which imply some malice or sarcasm. And though they might be considered to giggle or chuckle, what humor would they find in the topic of the joke (death)? Placid, indolent, mostly silent, they are no doubt more like animals, or rather household pets, the ones who are glad to see us happy, but alarmed to hear us laugh.