May 1, 2022

Jon Stewart (who, for sixteen years, hosted “The Daily Show” on TV’s Comedy Central and is usually identified as a comedian) recently had something to say about the state of humor today.  He said that “the real threat to humor” was the “fragility of leaders,” essentially saying that our so-called leaders today bristle and lash out at those who satirize them, and basically can’t take a joke. Combine that with the stifling effects of political correctness and the pervasiveness of woke-ism, and it’s easy to see why practitioners of humor now feel they must tread especially lightly, if at all.

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Stewart made these remarks on the occasion of being honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Just as I felt it necessary to include the information here as to who Jon Stewart is, I feel it may be helpful to include similar background on Mark Twain, and the reason that may be necessary will soon be revealed as the very point of this essay.

Samuel L. Clemens, 1835 -1910 (a time when the term “comedian,” in the way it’s used today, probably didn’t even exist), who wrote and lectured prolifically under the pen-name Mark Twain (a name derived from riverboat pilots on the Mississippi calling out the river’s depth; “mark twain” signified two fathoms, the minimum safe depth for passage), is still regarded as the dean of American humorists.

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Those who know me personally, or who may have gleaned it from my writing, may know that I am a compulsive collector and teller of jokes, and even consider myself a Joke Wrangler (one who can frequently catalogue several versions of a joke, and can “tweak,” fine-tune or even beat a poorly-crafted or poorly-told joke into shape).

I’ve recently become acutely aware of another “threat to humor,” but it has nothing to do with politics, political correctness or the sorry state of our current “leadership.” It’s the phenomenon of the audience for my jokes growing collectively younger, which means that jokes that turn on what were once universal cultural or historical references now elicit a bewildered blank look instead of a laugh, a chuckle, or even a groan.

While I was hospitalized recently with the Wuhan Flu, I tried to amuse my doctors, nurses and other attendants. I told them, for example, how a doctor had examined me and pronounced that I had “Tom Jones syndrome.” I told how, when I said, “I’ve never heard of that; is it rare?”, the doctor had replied, “It’s not unusual.”

I had to depend on another listener breaking into song with “It’s not un-u-sual to be loved by anyone…”, the first line of singer Tom Jones’s monster hit from 1965, for those with blank faces to get some idea of what was supposed to have been funny. Similarly, when I told a shaggy-dog story that ended with a groan-worthy pun on “I left my heart in San Francisco,” there was zero recognition of that phrase.

I understand how twenty- or thirty-somethings can’t be expected to be familiar with a pop song from before their lifetimes (even though, as a kid, I was familiar with many tunes made popular by Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey, and their contemporaries, tunes that my parents had swooned over before I was even a gleam in their eyes).

And I’d already experienced a similar reaction (or lack thereof) when attempting to tell a particular joke that I’ve enjoyed telling, for decades, every year on or about December 7th. That’s my joke about my friend who is part Japanese and part Black, which has caused him to be so confused that every December 7th he attacks Pearl Bailey! Each year, I’ve noticed that the joke can fall flat because there are fewer and fewer people who remember the delightful, award-winning singer and actress who called herself “Miss Pearlie Mae.”

Pearl Bailey, 1946 (public domain image)