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I am currently working on a comedy mystery novel set in a world somewhat like ours. I can draw with either my right or my left hand, and I love to paint. I administer the blog for The Original Tree Worshippers of Rock County--rocksherlockotw.blogspot.com--a Sherlockian group I co-founded that meets in Janesville, Wisconsin, and am a founding member of The Cherry Street Irregulars, writers who gather (in groups of two or more) with laptops to create, critique, and support one another.
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2010/09/17

On Humour

by Resa Haile

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoi wrote that all happy families are alike, but that unhappy families were all unhappy in their own way. In fact, there are many variations in both joy and misery. Perhaps sorrow is intensely personal, but most people feel sorrow at the same things. This may be, in part, because sorrow is universal while humour is individual.


The separation, whether of Lassie and her owner, Dumbo and his mother, or Romeo and Juliet; these are reliable tearjerkers across the globe. A man slips on a banana peel. Many people find it funny (if a bit cliché—but so, too, are Lassie and her owner); others do not. Some people love slapstick; some love puns; some are drawn to the well-placed punchline; others to the misplaced punch.

It is said that making the audience cry is easier than making it laugh. Something which one person finds hysterically funny may only lead another to a shaking of the head. It isn’t necessarily that a person doesn’t “get” the joke; he or she may simply not like the joke.

When I was on staff of a college newspaper, a cartoon was printed in which a man seeking career counseling is told he is suited to be either a birthday party clown or a serial killer. The man decides to be both. Of course he is the killer who also worked as a party clown many years ago in Chicago.

The newspaper received an e-mail questioning the decision to print this cartoon, particularly in the wake of recent incidents of on-campus violence. This is a valid point of view. Other people found the cartoon funny. That is a valid reaction as well. Some of the younger people with whom I spoke did not recognize the killer’s name, and, so, didn’t “get” the joke.

(I am actually heartened by this last. These are intelligent young people who would recognize the names of many historical figures, but this individual, whose only claim to fame is the destruction he caused, is not that memorable.)

Yet humour is rarely found in the moment when everything goes well. Like its sibling, drama, it is often found in that moment when the plan goes wrong; the absolutely wrong choice is made; something is just a little askew; and you don’t know quite where it will lead. Comedy is often close to tragedy. What we find funny depends in large part on the prism through which we view the situation.

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