All Classics Are Funny: If it isn’t hilarious, do you really think anyone is going to be reading it in ten thousand years? I didn’t think so. (JOEL CUTHBERTSON, NOV 10, 2023, The Bulwark)
ALL THE BEST JOKES, whether literary or otherwise, include some obscure and mysterious mix of expected and unexpected. If a punchline lands—if you get walloped, or even tapped upside the head—it’s because the writer used the quick hit of the expected to distract you from the oncoming haymaker of the unexpected. There’s no getting around metaphors here. Why is a joke funny? We will see the face of God before the truth is known. Possibly God will say, “What do you call a sea creature who keeps banging on the door?” And as the seventh seal is opened, we will glow with glory, murmuring, “O Lord, a knock-topus.”
But I don’t mean that all jokes are simply puns. Consider Norm Macdonald’s all-time late-night routine. “In the early part of the previous century, Germany decided to go to war. And, uh, who did they go to war with? The world.” This verbal gag turns on the way “World War” has been lodged into our brains as a stock phrase, one that has become abstracted and detached from the specific historical realities it’s meant to designate. Norm’s brilliant reifying swerve is the result of his attention to that curious slippage. (“It was actually close,” he says, keeping at it.)
The same deep attention that enables great jokes can be found in all the books that have earned the “classic” label. Without humor, without the heel-turn of wit, a book’s range shrinks. The re-readability of lasting works is based on the vivacity of the text’s continual swerves, the mix of expectations met, undermined, and overturned. Humor is a virtuosic form of the mind’s spontaneous engagement with the world: Take it away, and the text’s formal vitality, even in the best dramatic outings, withers.