I had a friend in college who would shut himself in his bedroom every afternoon and force himself to laugh at nothing in particular for exactly five minutes. It was one of the “Daily Habits of Joy and Excellence” that he’d recommended to himself and posted on the wall of his apartment: laugh for five minutes each day. Listening to him from the other room, you got a strange feeling. To think that you lived in a world where people would shut themselves in their rooms and laugh alone. How funny, or sad.
My son, age nine, is a collector of jokes. That his father isn’t a collector of jokes is one of the great disappointments of his childhood. He only likes funny books these days. His favorites include Garfield comics and Tom Sawyer. He recently wanted something new to read so I handed him my copy of Code of the Woosters, warning that it may be premature. He gave it up after only two pages, bogged down by Bertie’s euphemisms for cocktails (“morning revivers,” “tissue-restorers”) and the implausibility of anyone being named Gussie Fink-Nottle.
Humor, I think, is something we aspire to more often than achieve. But successful humor frequently comes from failure, from incompetence, from a sense of our inadequacy to the task of living – and life’s inadequacy to the task of being lived. Think of Cervantes, of Rabelais, and of Laurence Sterne. Among great American humorists I count Melville, Thomas Berger, and Peter De Vries. A fool on the stage means the play’s a tragedy, but it’s the jester who keeps us company when we’re wandering the barren heath.