Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Smile when you say that, pardner

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that using exclamation points is like laughing at your own jokes. I like the analogy. In either case, it is telling one's audience how to respond. An exclamation point says, "Hey, pay attention here. This is important!" Laughing at one's own joke says, "Hey, pay attention here. This is funny!" Like Fitzgerald, I favor letting others decide for themselves how they will react. It seems more polite, somehow. Or at least less egotistical.

Red Skelton
Some comics have laughed at their own jokes and gotten away with it. The laughter of Red Skelton and Phyllis Diller, for example, became a part of their acts. We laughed not just at their jokes but also at their trademark laughter. At the other extreme are those like Steven Wright and Rodney Dangerfield, who would never laugh at their own jokes, or rarely even break a smile. Most successful comedians are more like Wright and Dangerfield than Skelton and Diller.

I know a woman who laughs after virtually everything she says, although I do not recall her ever saying anything funny. Like an exclamation point at the end of every sentence, this creates a boy-who-cried-wolf effect. If she ever does say something funny, how would anyone know?

Steven Wright
Come to think of it, I have the same problem. When I attempt wit, I have a straight-faced delivery that Steven Wright might envy. As a consequence, other people, especially those who don't know me very well, can't tell if I'm joking or not. In such situations, their safest response may be none at all. At a party one night I said something that I thought was the wittiest thing anyone said all evening. But I said it with a straight face and a soft voice. Nobody laughed. But my friend, standing next to me, repeated the same line in a loud voice that told everyone he was joking, and he got a huge laugh from everyone there, including those nearby who ignored the quip when I said it.

So what does that tell us? When comics like Steven Wright and Rodney Dangerfield are introduced to an audience, everyone knows they are supposed to be funny, so everyone feels free to laugh. For the rest of us, some compromise may sometimes be necessary. That compromise, like the occasional exclamation point, can simply be a broad smile that warns everyone it's only a joke.

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