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The Thurber Carnival

James Thurber

For some reason, tragedy seems to be something that is universally understood.  It transcends time and culture.  From the works of Shakespeare, we study Hamlet and Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, or the love sonnets.  We can watch a foreign film, and the themes of love and loss and betrayal resonate with us, even if we don’t fully comprehend their context.  The books that survive the test of time, get translated into sixteen languages, almost always fall into those categories.  It seems fair to say that we all, as humans, experience love and longing and despair in more or less the same way.

But comedy is different.  Comedy, for some reason, we experience very differently.  Jokes are notoriously hard to translate.  And not just puns, which depend upon the rhythm and sound of the language.  Pretty much every joke is hard to translate — from one language to another, and from one century to another.  It’s one of the most reliable markers of linguistic fluency: do you get the jokes?  Because most humour relies upon the violation of expectations.  The setup leads you to expect one thing, and the punchline delivers something else.  So to get the joke, you need to understand the context of the setup, to know what the expectation is.  And you need to understand in what way the punchline violates that expectation.  Otherwise, you don’t “get” the joke.

But once you do “get” the joke, it doesn’t get funnier with repetition (usually).  Because now you know what to expect from it.  And it’s true not just for individual jokes, but for whole genres or styles of humour.  Once the joke no longer violates the convention, but becomes the convention, it ceases to be funny.  Jokes just don’t age well, the way that tragedy does.  Which unfortunately becomes apparent while reading The Thurber Carnival.  Thurber is remembered as one of the great American essayists, cartoonists, and humorists.  But as humour, today, it just isn’t that funny.  Some of it provokes a wry smile, and some of it is just sort of inexplicable, because the context of it is lost.  You can only do satire if the reader knows that it is that you’re satirising.  Otherwise, you’re just talking to the walls.

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