The thing I find most intriguing is how some tastes in humor have changed substantially over the years, causing certain joke types to virtually disappear from our culture, while other joke types have passed through the generations intact. I’ll begin with an example of the latter. Jokes like this one may be found in current sitcoms pretty much verbatim from what I’m quoting here (albeit with the dollar amount adjusted for inflation):
The judge had just awarded a divorce to a wife who had charged nonsupport.
“And,” he said to the husband, “I have decided to give your wife fifty dollars a month toward her support.”
“That’s fine, Judge,” said the husband cordially, “and once in a while I’ll try to slip her a few bucks myself.”
Contrast that with the following, a style that has just about disappeared:
At a certain foreign embassy in Dublin, which has a reputation for being involved more in undercover work than in diplomacy, they sent an agent to a County Kerry town with instructions to make contact with the local secret agent, whose name was Brosnan. On meeting him, he was to whisper the secret passwords: “The grass is green and the cows are brown,” before getting down to business.
The agent hurried to the Kerry town in the guise of a tourist, and met a local resident on the street.
“I’m looking for a man called Brosnan,” he said.
“Which Brosnan would that be?” asked the local. “You see our town is full of Brosnans. There’s Brosnan the grocer and Brosnan the publican and Brosnan the butcher and Brosnan the draper. Sure, me own name is Brosnan.”
The visitor was confused but decided he would have to start somewhere if he were to complete his mission. So, in a low voice, he said, “The grass is green and the cows are brown.”
“Oh,” said the local, “’tis Brosnan the spy you want!”
If I were to speculate on why this type of joke has fallen out of favor, I think I would have to begin with its length. Jokes nowadays are much shorter than they used to be. We seem to be in an era where the one-liner is king. I mean no disrespect to the art of the one-liner. A good one can be an artwork of economical language and imagery, and I’ve devoted a large portion of my life to the pursuit of one-liners. But it is true that a century ago, there was a type of performer called a monologist that scarcely exists anymore. If you read transcriptions of some of those old monologues, you find that the rate of actual jokes per minute is far lower than the rate expected of a standup comic today. Those monologues tended to draw much more upon characters, funny voices, and vivid imagery for their entertainment value, whereas the modern equivalent has evolved toward a much more stripped-down model, focusing almost exclusively on punch lines. I’m well aware that I’m speaking in generalities here; there is still a lot of variety to be found among modern comics, but I think these are valid ideas in a general sense.
I’m not sitting here pining for the return of the monologists. The fact is that I am a modern person whose ear and tastes have been largely honed by modern entertainers. Still, I find that there are some jewels to be mined back there and I think that along with them can come a deeper understanding and appreciation for where we are now, as well as for the subtleties of language and communication.