The oldest joke in the world wasn’t conjured up by a person. It happened when some monkeys watched a big alpha monkey walk across a rock…and slip on a banana peel. Why? Why would a monkey find this funny?
If you asked a computer to analyze the situation, it would say that the appropriate response would be sadness that someone or some thing had come to harm, and on one level that’s probably true. So why is “funny” linked so closely to sadness, anger, embarrassment, and profound stupidity? Way back when, Charlie Chaplin keyed into this truth early in his career. Later John Cleese in Fawlty Towers made embarrassment his finely-honed weapon of choice. If you think for a second about your favorite comedian, five will get you ten that he or she has made a quirky connection between what’s pathetic or tragic in life to what’s funny. It’s what gets us through the day. When you lose your sense of humor…you’re in serious trouble.
Last spring, Schiffer Publishing debuted my weird little book of short stories about animals. The title itself was a literary lightning rod. On every book tour I’ve done this year, I’ve had to explain what 37 Cents a Fart and Other Infamous Animal Stories actually means. (It was originally titled Humpy Humpy, because the publisher thought 37 Cents was more up-town, but that’s a story for a different day.)
The first few signings were the hardest: I had some explaining to do. But then about a month into the tour, something wonderful happened. In addition to the quizzical looks on most of the people strolling into the bookstores, every once in awhile someone would walk up to the counter…grinning from ear to ear as if we shared some secret joke. Then I’d hear some form of the following in every state I went to: “You made me laugh, you made me cry. Then you made me laugh again.” There isn’t any higher praise for a writer. That’s as good as it gets. Why? Let’s dig down a little deeper, look behind the curtain…and to the point of this article:
Think back for a moment to your favorite movies, books, and TV shows and chances are you’ll find something in common. Humanity. These are the books and movies that lead you into the darkest, saddest, sometimes scariest moments in our lives and then…BAM! they’ll hit you with something funny from out of nowhere. This is the very stuff of humanity. It says in a weird quirky little way that there’s always hope, well, almost always.
It’s a cautionary tale as well. Right in the middle of the most perfect moment of your life, something will happen. You will zig when you’re supposed to be zagging and…please excuse my French but, you are suddenly just So….fucked. In the military we had an acronym for it: FUBAR…Fucked-up beyond all recognition. Maybe that’s the beauty and the tragedy of life. Whether you’re rich, poor, good-looking, ugly-as-mud, brilliant or a fluff-brain, life is eventually going to even it all out for every one of us. Don’t worry about the Trumps and the movie stars and the models. I guarantee you we all get our share, one way or another.
Neil Diamond had an old song, entitled Done Too Soon. It starts with a fast medley of about fifty famous, weird, infamous, and nasty people but then when it comes to the end of the song, there’s a kicker and it grabs pretty hard: “And each one there… had one thing to share. They had sweated beneath the same sun… Looked up and wondered at the same moon. And wept when it was all done……….for being done too soon”. It helps if you’ve heard it before, but it’ll getcha.
On the other side of the coin, there’s a little palette cleansing scene that exemplifies the point as well. There’s a Frito of a movie out there, but it’s a really good Frito. It’s called Zombieland and the premise, like most zombie movies, is that zombies have taken over and humanity is left scurrying around trying to hide and fight back. At some point toward the grand finale, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, and several other actors are running for their lives. They’re being chased by an impossibly large hoard of hungry gory zombies. It’s night time and they’re in an amusement park. Just at the last second as the zombies are about to catch up and kill them all, one of the big Egyptian barge rides that has swung up into the night sky…swings back down and takes-out about fifty zombies. Call it deus ex machina because if anything is, it’s that scene, but it’s also funny as hell. It gives us hope. Sometimes we think we’re utterly screwed…but then… maybe not. Hope, humor, sadness…they’re all slices from the same pie.
In 37 Cents a Fart, there are 44 little stories…not about Lassies or Rin Tin Tins, but dogs, cats, guinea pigs, hamsters…snapping turtles that are also trying to muddle through life. They fart. They hump your leg while you’re watching TV, they sometimes play you for a sucker (tip: You have to go along with it). They get sick and sometimes they die. It is truly agony and ecstacy having a little creature to take care of. When Pamela was editing the first chapters (I always whimp-out and disappear into another room when she’s editing) I heard weird stuff coming from her den. She’d be laughing out loud. Then there’d be silence. A few minutes later she came in with tears rolling down her face. Her first critique of the chapters was, “You’re killing me.” I said something like, “Does it suck that bad?” To which she explained, “No, it’s good. It’s just that one minute I’m laughing, then you sucker-punch me in the story. Keep doing it.”
…Saw an indie movie last night and Pam and I are hideously picky about what we like. Didn’t expect much. It was called, “The Sessions” with Helen Hunt playing…(are you ready for this?) a sex therapist, only she’s trying to help this poor sonofabitch with polio who’s in an iron lung. It sounds ghastly. It sounds like poor, poor taste…and it ain’t. It was funny as hell, and then you get sucker-punched horribly so. And I guess that’s sort of the meaning of life. Eric Idle had it down pretty well, with his dark little ditty, “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” Just remember that the last joke is on you…and me. Henry
P.S. Hi again. It’s the one year anniversary of 37 Cents a Fart and Other Infamous Animal Stories. To commemorate, send us your best, favorite, funniest, saddest, or stupidest animal anecdote. We’ll publish the ten best ones and each “winner” will receive a signed copy of 37 Cents.