The Secret to Humor

The secret to humor is surprise.

Unlike the scholarly, well footnoted opuses I usually bring to this space, I have decided to foresake the dusty library stacks and my arduous original research to celebrate summer’s last gasp. Join me in a hammock with a lemonade (although it may get crowded) for a few vignettes that make me smile and laugh out loud. Although on disparate subjects, each features a wry twist.

The early 1970s comedy The Odd Couple featured divorcee and sportswriter slob Oscar Madison sharing a Manhattan apartment with Felix Unger, a commercial photographer (portraits a specialty), neat freak and meddler. A favorite episode has Oscar going on and on lamenting a lost romance of his youth. Felix, ever the nudge, tracks down Judy, Oscar’s former flame, and sets up a surprise meeting. The show’s final scene is Judy, all 450 pounds of her, rushing into Oscar’s arms. Will this be an awkward moment? The show is saved and will always remain in my memory because an equally delighted Oscar rushes toward her and blurts out, “Judy, you lost weight!”

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Science class at my junior high school in Pennsauken, NJ. We are watching a black and white educational film about insects. Our teacher Miss Grover, who was rumored to have lost a fiancee in the Spanish American War, is presiding. In this era almost any diversion from “the lecture” was appreciated, note the word almost. A few minutes into the film we become aware that this screen gem is funded by a subsidiary of Dow Chemical Company, whose answer to almost every question is DDT. (This is pre-Vietnam and today’s target is termites.) The film takes an ominous turn. “You may see a half dozen termites chewing on a baseboard.” I recognize the narrator’s voice from his work on “Russia: Threat or Menace?”, but today his crusade is to warn of another kind of vermin. In a voice usually reserved for fellow travelers and Hollywood types he implores us, “Do not be fooled if you see a few termites. There may be thousands doing damage on the other side of the wall!” The camera cuts to a spot that is black with termites! Those of us who are not sound asleep are terrified. There was silence. Finally my friend Steve crinkles his nose and naively wonders aloud, “I have thousands of termites in my garage. Does that mean that there are two or three on the other side of the wall?”
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Who can forget our own Lake of the Isles’ Mary Tyler Moore Show ? Late in the series Ted Baxter and Georgette get married and quickly become adoptive parents to a 10 year old son. The boy is struggling in school and the Baxters turn to newsroom gang for advice. The whole WJM crew offers words of encouragement and vague suggestions to Georgette and Ted, who are crestfallen and clearly out of their depth. An elderly relative of Lou’s happens to be visiting the newsroom, and he gets drawn into the discussion. After witnessing the hand wringing, he asks if he might offer an observation. “I’m an old man and I’ve seen one or two things in my lifetime. Sometimes there’s a reason why a child is not doing well in school…and it’s very simple, but no one ever thinks of it! He could be stupid.”

* * *earby owl

The scene is the locker room of a very exclusive English club, think dark oak, chandeliers. Three older members have just emerged from the showers when a number of women appear, having clearly walked through the wrong door on their tour of the facilities. There are shrieks and laughter as the men race to cover themselves. Two of the men grab towels to rap around their waists. The third man hastily places a towel over his head. After the women depart the first two men ask their comrade to explain his unusual behavior. He pauses briefly and then responds, “I cannot speak for you chaps, but in this town I am better known by my face.”

Tom H. Cook is a formerly local writer. Unlike those spouting the cliche du jour, his next rodeo would be his first.




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