A (much needed) change of pace

A cartoon in this morning’s paper triggered a memory, a set of memories, about what is funny.

At the heart of funny is the joke. Normally, the joke has several elements, which are supposed to occur in a specific order:

  • set-up
  • pause
  • punch line
  • (sometimes) kicker, a punch-line topper.

In that cartoon, however, things are reversed: punch line comes before set-up.

You could argue that the what seems to be a mis-placed punch line really is a set-up, and that what appears to be a mis-placed set-up really is the punch line.

The memory toward which it propelled me was yet another use of the punch line: the punch line which has no story.

We can’t have been the first to discover and play with the idea, but my friend Frank and I — this is sixty years ago or so — started doing it as a form of practical joke. Our idea was that one of us would recite a story-less punch line, and the other would laugh heartily. Everyone else would look on in confusion, at which Frank and I would reply, in mock amazement, “You mean you never heard that joke?”

Of course they hadn’t. There wasn’t one. And that was the joke.

Maybe I need to include a few examples to make the idea clear.

  • My foot’s caught in the torpedo tube.
  • He had one, but the wheels fell off.
  • Wait, it’s coming out at this end.

I guess you had to be there. And, sixty years ago, most of you weren’t. Trust me, however: at the time, they were funny.


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