Lord, how I wish I were funny. People who can toss off dry asides or zing a comeback keep our brains happy—and they keep life’s pettiness and drama in perspective. I have always been too Serious. Also too slow. Mine is l’esprit d’escalier, that perfect French phrase for only coming up with a witty retort when you are on the staircase, leaving the party. Knowing this, I reach for How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor, wondering if maybe a bit of technique might help….
I want to be funny and I start in ancient Rome? With “the longest extant discussion of humor we have from the ancient world”? You see my problem. Still, the book is fun. The first half comes from a treatise on the art of humor by Cicero, pronounced one of the two funniest men in history by the writer Macrobius. The second half turns to Quintilian, who took his cue from the master. Translator Michael Fontaine tries (sometimes a little too hard) to put their tips and musings into breezy contemporary English, erasing the centuries and causing some of the jokes to fall a little flat, because we forget to switch our sensibilities to ancient Rome. But to my shock, many hold up quite well, and the theory remains sound.
Early on, I am put in my place. There are indeed joke-telling and joke-writing techniques, but the comic sensibility cannot be taught. Finding something funny in the first place—seeing the absurdity, the irony, the analogy, the edge—is what matters, and it emerges from a combination of detachment, affinity, and wry intelligence. I remember a friend, D.J. Wilson, who kept us all laughing with his stories about his unruly family. He was funny because he was amused, and that was because he saw through stuffy pretense, and because love was stronger in him than pride, and a light cynicism gave him the requisite distance.
Cicero had the comic sensibility. He had so much of the comic sensibility that his biographer, Plutarch, complained that he “often got carried away with the ridicule and veered into stand-up comedy.” It was just too hard for a man of his wit to hold back the quips. Fontaine sums up the tension: “Cicero considered himself a smartass. Others considered him a jackass.”
Be careful what you wish for, I remind myself. Humor can cut deep; it can offend and provoke. That said, it can also slide points into a debate that, said seriously, would provoke a defensive slam. Both Cicero and Quintilian are interested in humor’s use in legal argument—to cleverly discredit the opposing side without alienating judge or jury—and in politics. Conciliare, the art of winning the crowd, is what they set out to teach us.
Notebook ready, I make my solemn way through their lessons. Cicero has no interest in “what laughter itself is, how it’s aroused, where it dwells, how it arises and erupts so suddenly that we can’t stop it even though we want to, and how it can simultaneously take over the sides, mouth, cheeks, eyes, and face—go ask Democritus for all that.” Cicero only wants to look at what is and is not funny.
Not funny: obvious criminal evil or misery. Funny: people who do not deserve deep hatred or extreme pity; “the life problems of people who aren’t highly respected, tragically afflicted, or fit for a hanging.” Flaws and disfigurements are fair game, as long as the jokes stay funny. (Luckily, it is hard to cancel a dead ancient.) Nonetheless, there is often a strategic kindness to his approach: “Our comebacks are more impressive than our unprovoked cut-downs,” he tells us. “The quickness of a person’s mind appears greater in a response, and 2) comebacks are indicative of good manners, since they suggest we never would’ve said anything if we hadn’t been attacked.”
Language’s many interpretations hand Cicero one comic opportunity after another. “What kind of man gets caught in flagrante delicto? A slow one.” “That guy has it all—except money and redeeming qualities.” People laugh at the doubleness, just as they laugh at surprises, naivete, exaggeration, stupidity, non sequiturs, and other people’s quirks (or their own). Surely with such a long list of categories, I could find a way in?
Ah, but people need “a certain—almost innate—sense of humor and a personality that’s suited to these types,” Cicero calls from the crypt, “so that their facial expression can also be made to match each type of joke.” The more deadpan your expression, the funnier the joke.
Almost any of his teasing observations could also be used to make a serious point, Cicero continues. “Seriousness appeals to honor and important matters, while a joke appeals to slightly disgraceful, practically ugly ones.” His wisecrack about a servant who steals compulsively, for example—“For him alone, nothing in our home is locked or sealed off”—could have been a compliment, had the servant been honorable.
“The Art of Humor” is a slanted look at human nature, wiser than most psychology. Alas, Marc Antony had Cicero assassinated, depriving us of more. Quintilian carried on his work in The Education of the Orator.
Making a jury laugh, Quintilian wrote, “breaks up their upset emotions, takes their mind off the facts, and sometimes even snaps them out of it and gives them a fresh start when they’re tired or bored.” Humor can be urbane and greatly admired—or, if stupid, it can boomerang back at the speaker. And while laughter seems easy to provoke and therefore trivial, “it does have a certain overpowering and conquering force, where all resistance is futile. It oftentimes erupts from us even against our will, not only squeezing a confession from the face and voice but even rocking the whole body forcefully.”
Quintilian echoes Cicero’s love of the deadpan, reminding us that “nothing’s as unfunny as a joke that’s told as explicitly funny.” All my “Oh my God, you’ve got to hear this” enthusiasm undercuts my stories. “We also must not let a quip we make appear flippant, arrogant, inappropriate, rehearsed, or cooked up in advance,” Quintilian continues, further complicating the art. As for targets, “some people command such authority and respect that any flippancy toward them will only harm the speaker.” No Nelson Mandela jokes. No stereotypes, either. “Generalizations are another bad idea, where you attack whole groups based on ethnic identity, class, status, or activities the masses enjoy.” Quintilian might escape cancellation, even today.
He quotes the master freely, using Cicero’s “He bumped his head on a triumphal arch” as an example of hyperbole. “You’re about as oversexed as a eunuch” plays with opposites. Metaphor also comes into play: when Cicero hears a rumor of Vatinius’s death and cannot confirm it, he says, “If I can’t buy it, I’ll take the loan.”
When Dolabella’s wife claims to be thirty years old, Cicero says, adding a bit of schtick, “It’s true! I’ve been hearing her say it for twenty years now.” In one of Cicero’s stories, when a man brags about the scar on his face, boasting that he got it fighting for Caesar, Caesar replies, “You should never look back while running away.”
Laughing as I key the words, I wonder if I hunger for humor because there seems less of it every day. “We gotta let some air out of the ball, man,” Dave Chappelle said. “The country’s getting a little tight. It doesn’t feel like it’s ever felt in my lifetime.”
And here I am, seriously worried about quoting that Chappelle remark because he has been vilified for other remarks. We are throwing out a lot of babies with the scummy gray bath water these days. Hypervigilant for offense, we cannot relax long enough to laugh. In other periods of rapid social change and conflict, humor often eased the way. But now there is scant chance for jokes Freud categorized as “relief” because they temporarily lift an inhibition.
The philosopher Simon Critchley tells us that humor is what civilized people have in common. It can thread through the weightiest debates, lightening the mood and restoring proportion. But if an entire society loses that sensibility, can it be regained?
That was a serious question. But if Oscar Wilde were alive, he would have found a clever way to frame it, adding over his shoulder, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.”
Seriousness can easily become rigid, shut off from other perspectives. Wit is inventive.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.