Toasts and Jokes: How to tell a joke and make a toast

Of the test for a sense of humor, it has already been said that it is
the ability to see a joke. And, as for a joke, the dictionary, again a
present help in time of trouble, tells us at once that it is, “something
said or done for the purpose of exciting a laugh.” But stay! Suppose it
does not excite the laugh expected? What of the joke that misses fire?
Shall a joke be judged by its intent or by its consequences? Is a joke
that does not produce a laugh a joke at all? Pragmatically considered it
is not. Agnes Repplier, writing on Humor, speaks of “those beloved
writers whom we hold to be humorists because they have made us laugh.”
We hold them to be so–but there seems to be a suggestion that we may be
wrong. Is it possible that the laugh is not the test of the joke? Here
is a question over which the philosophers may wrangle. Is there an
Absolute in the realm of humor, or must our jokes be judged solely by
the pragmatic test? Congreve once told Colly Gibber that there were many
witty speeches in one of Colly’s plays, and many that looked witty, yet
were not really what they seemed at first sight! So a joke is not to be
recognized even by its appearance or by the company it keeps. Perhaps
there might be established a test of good usage. A joke would be that at
which the best people laugh.

Somebody–was it Mark Twain?–once said that there are eleven original
jokes in the world–that these were known in prehistoric times, and that
all jokes since have been but modifications and adaptations from the
originals. Miss Repplier, however, gives to modern times the credit for
some inventiveness. Christianity, she says, must be thanked for such
contributions as the missionary and cannibal joke, and for the
interminable variations of St. Peter at the gate. Max Beerbohm once
codified all the English comic papers and found that the following list
comprised all the subjects discussed: Mothers-in-law; Hen-pecked
husbands; Twins; Old maids; Jews; Frenchmen and Germans; Italians and
Niggers; Fatness; Thinness; Long hair (in men); Baldness; Sea sickness;
Stuttering; Bloomers; Bad cheese; Red noses. A like examination of
American newspapers would perhaps result in a slightly different list.
We have, of course, our purely local jokes. Boston will always be a joke
to Chicago, the east to the west. The city girl in the country offers a
perennial source of amusement, as does the country man in the city. And
the foreigner we have always with us, to mix his Y’s and J’s, distort
his H’s, and play havoc with the Anglo-Saxon Th. Indeed our great
American sense of humor has been explained as an outgrowth from the vast
field of incongruities offered by a developing civilization.

It may be that this vaunted national sense has been
over-estimated–exaggeration is a characteristic of that humor,
anyway–but at least it has one of the Christian virtues–it suffereth
long and is kind. Miss Repplier says that it is because we are a
“humorous rather than a witty people that we laugh for the most part
with, and not at our fellow creatures.” This, I think, is something that
our fellow creatures from other lands do not always comprehend. I
listened once to a distinguished Frenchman as he addressed the students
in a western university chapel. He was evidently astounded and
embarrassed by the outbursts of laughter that greeted his mildly
humorous remarks. He even stopped to apologize for the deficiencies of
his English, deeming them the cause, and was further mystified by the
little ripple of laughter that met his explanation–a ripple that came
from the hearts of the good-natured students, who meant only to be
appreciative and kind. Foreigners, too, unacquainted with American slang
often find themselves precipitating a laugh for which they are
unprepared. For a bit of current slang, however and whenever used, is
always humorous.

The American is not only a humorous person, he is a practical person. So
it is only natural that the American humor should be put to practical
uses. It was once said that the difference between a man with tact and a
man without was that the man with tact, in trying to put a bit in a
horse’s mouth, would first tell him a funny story, while the man without
tact would get an axe. This use of the funny story is the American way
of adapting it to practical ends. A collection of funny stories used to
be an important part of a drummer’s stock in trade. It is by means of
the “good story” that the politician makes his way into office; the
business man paves the way for a big deal; the after-dinner speaker gets
a hearing; the hostess saves her guests from boredom. Such a large place
does the “story” hold in our national life that we have invented a
social pastime that might be termed a “joke match.” “Don’t tell a funny
story, even if you know one,” was the advice of the Atchison Globe man,
“its narration will only remind your hearers of a bad one.” True as this
may be, we still persist in telling our funny story. Our hearers are
reminded of another, good or bad, which again reminds us–and so on.

A sense of humor, as was intimated before, is the chiefest of the
virtues. It is more than this–it is one of the essentials to success.
For, as has also been pointed out, we, being a practical people, put our
humor to practical uses. It is held up as one of the prerequisites for
entrance to any profession. “A lawyer,” says a member of that order,
must have such and such mental and moral qualities; “but before all
else”–and this impressively–“he must possess a sense of humor.” Samuel
McChord Crothers says that were he on the examining board for the
granting of certificates to prospective teachers, he would place a copy
of Lamb’s essay on Schoolmasters in the hands of each, and if the light
of humorous appreciation failed to dawn as the reading progressed, the
certificate would be withheld. For, before all else, a teacher must
possess a sense of humor! If it be true, then, that the sense of humor
is so important in determining the choice of a profession, how wise are
those writers who hold it an essential for entrance into that most
exacting of professions–matrimony! “Incompatibility in humor,” George
Eliot held to be the “most serious cause of diversion.” And Stevenson,
always wise, insists that husband and wife must he able to laugh over
the same jokes–have between them many a “grouse in the gun-room” story.
But there must always be exceptions if the spice of life is to be
preserved, and I recall one couple of my acquaintance, devoted and loyal
in spite of this very incompatibility. A man with a highly whimsical
sense of humor had married a woman with none. Yet he told his best
stories with an eye to their effect on her, and when her response came,
peaceful and placid and non-comprehending, he would look about the table
with delight, as much as to say, “Isn’t she a wonder? Do you know her

Humor may be the greatest of the virtues, yet it is the one of whose
possession we may boast with impunity. “Well, that was too much for my
sense of humor,” we say. Or, “You know my sense of humor was always my
strong point.” Imagine thus boasting of one’s integrity, or sense of
honor! And so is its lack the one vice of which one may not permit
himself to be a trifle proud. “I admit that I have a hot temper,” and “I
know I’m extravagant,” are simple enough admissions. But did any one
ever openly make the confession, “I know I am lacking in a sense of
humor!” However, to recognize the lack one would first have to possess
the sense–which is manifestly impossible.

“To explain the nature of laughter and tears is to account for the
condition of human life,” says Hazlitt, and no philosophy has as yet
succeeded in accounting for the condition of human life. “Man is a
laughing animal,” wrote Meredith, “and at the end of infinite search the
philosopher finds himself clinging to laughter as the best of human
fruit, purely human, and sane, and comforting.” So whether it be the
corrective laughter of Bergson, Jove laughing at lovers’ vows, Love
laughing at locksmiths, or the cheerful laughter of the fool that was
like the crackling of thorns to Koheleth, the preacher, we recognize
that it is good; that without this saving grace of humor life would be
an empty vaunt. I like to recall that ancient usage: “The skie hangs
full of humour, and I think we shall haue raine.” Blessed humor, no less
refreshing today than was the humour of old to a parched and thirsty

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