Saturday, January 23, 2010

Forward Motion

There were a lot of challenges this past week. My ankle was sore, I had a head cold and there was more activity than I could assimilate at work. The weather was mending from the long-standing snows, but the north wind cut like a straight razor. So I was happy when the weather station said the temperature would be 50 and the sun would shine. I needed some solitary roaming in the great out-of-doors.
I left at 11 for a lovely, well-maintained bike path with great scenery and convenient pit-stops. The mercury had not yet climbed out of the mid-40s and the sun was like a gray sticker in a grayer sky, but the wind was gentle and the day felt almost balmy compared to the past few weeks.
In order to get to the trail, the first leg of my customary bicycle ride took me through the back part of a cemetery where last summer and fall I would invariably see a comically fat groundhog. I didn’t see it today and surmised the animal must be deep in hibernation. The dumpy rodent would not have seen his shadow today, that’s for sure. One day in the early winter, before the bad weather, I saw five does grazing in the cemetery. They were curious about me, but not as nervous about a human creature as deer should be. They were nonchalant as they made their decision to glide on towards the power line.
But today there were no deer and no groundhog, just the brown vacuity of a graveyard in the dead of winter. I was glad to arrive at the bike path and observe that not many other people were out for a ride or jog. I thought it might be crowded since this is our first respite from the fierceness of January. I rode past wet woodlands, still full of water from the thaw, past ponds trying to absorb the thick ice that had settled in them, past a few remote residential areas where people were snug inside. The summer smell of food sizzling on the grill did not waft past as I rode on to the end of the path.
A group of serious cyclists were just entering the end of the trail heading back the way I had come. They were colorfully decked out as if they had just come off the Tour d’France. The lead fellow, a middle aged man who looked as if he had a tapeworm, asked me if the path was clear or was there still snow on it. I told him the Township kept the snow off the trail. “You may find some on the edges your first mile or so, but after that it is smooth sailing.” I think the man looked disappointed. It was as if he wanted to turn back and he was looking for an excuse for doing so. He didn’t even thank me for the information.
I know people like that, don’t you? Always looking for an excuse not to move forward.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Why Things Are Funny

Things that are funny are most often so because of their incongruity. That is, we don’t expect things to turn out the way they do and there is something mirth-provoking about the unexpected happening. Thus, stand-up comedy is the hardest kind because the audience expects the comedian to be funny. It is as if some members of the audience are saying either, “We came here to laugh, give us an excuse to do so,” or, “I’m here smart guy, make me laugh.”
For awhile in our country, stand-up comics relied on ugly words to get laughs, because dirty language was unexpected in polite society. Lenny Bruce started the foul mouthed trend and Richard Pryor perfected it. Since then almost all comedians drag their routines through the gutter. The same pattern happened with sexual innuendo until it got so blatant as to be completely humorless.
Ventriloquists have the toughest job as comics, even though the incongruity feature is built in and should work to their advantage. Edgar Bergen, with his Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, used to rely on language games, witticisms, misunderstandings and social blunders for laughs. Bergen had Charlie make some comments from time to time about his amorous aspirations with an audience member, but never to the point of bawdiness. Bergen was so skillful with his act that across the popular culture world, it was as if his dummies were real people.
Modern day ventriloquists should recognize from the history of their trade that suspension of disbelief is a must. People have to believe the dummies are real people. The audience should not say, “Charles is really a good ventriloquist, he didn’t move his lips at all.” Rather they should say, “Do you remember what Bingy said to Charles?” The dummy Bingy should be real in the minds of the audience. The humor comes from the incongruity implicit in one individual being able to project multiple believable personalities through blocks of wood.
Professional funnymen with their staff of writers, egoists like Jay Leno and Conan O’Brian, are just not funny. In fact, they are boring, especially with all the self-pity they are currently spewing across the networks. David Letterman is, however, quite funny, not so much when he does the jokes his tawdry writers produce, but when he is spontaneously stupid, which happens often. The incongruity feature is something like, “How did a dolt like that get and keep a job and why am I watching and enjoying this?”
Our forebears in the forests and fetid caves probably guffawed when someone stumped his toe, not because they enjoyed another person’s agony, but because they expected the victim to have been more careful walking. The incongruity was the joke. The most hilarious episode in my recent life was when I fell backwards while sitting on a stump in the back yard. Family members aided, abetted and prolonged the incongruous episode. I was not a stand-up comic there on the ground, flat of my back. But I made people laugh, including myself.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Lassie Makes me Laugh

It was on a flight out of Little Rock that I first noticed humans sometimes sound like happy chimpanzees when they laugh. There was a group of people behind me on that flight on their way to a connection that would take them to Hawaii. Their ecstasy manifested in magnificent monkey sounds all the way to Dallas. So, every time I get truly, that is uncontrollably, tickled, I listen to myself laugh and sure enough, there is a little mountain gorilla grunt tucked away somewhere in the mirthful emanation.
The same God that made me, made the monkey, so it should be no surprise that we utter our joy in a similar fashion. As a person who believes in intelligent design, I certainly reject any evolutionary connection between our expressions of mirth. Even so, children on a playground having fun shriek and shout in a very simian fashion. In fact, the game of chase, that starts with one being “it,” is a game enjoyed not only by humans, but also by apes, dogs and cats. I have even seen young donkeys playing that game until their concentration gives out (in about 10 seconds).
Also, I have found that relief-valve laughter, the uncontrollable kind that overtakes us when we are bone weary, sounds more zoo-like than any other. There was a man named Fisher who used to work for Pop. Inevitably, at the end of a long day of labor, he would get tickled about one thing or another. Things got funnier towards 5 p.m. and they were hilarious on Friday afternoon. He laughed on the inhale, like a jack. You didn’t even know he was laughing until he started audibly sucking air. In other words, he would wheeze out the first string of laughter and then become very vocal in short bursts on the inhale. Fisher sounded like a shorting out vacuum cleaner with a rubber glove caught in the tube.
My brother Curtis had a unique laugh as well. He would place his tongue behind his two front teeth, which had a little gap between them, and blow short bursts of laughter until his face got red and the tears flowed. Once we were playing with a tape recorder. Curtis was doing some “Man on the Street” type interviews and I was playing multiple men on the street. The dialog that struck him funny went this way:
“Sir, what is your name?”
“Where are you from.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“I raise dogs.”
“What kind of dogs do you raise?”
That last response is what set Curtis to blowing uncontrollable laughter. I still don’t know why it was funny, but I laughed to see him laugh. He actually fell to the floor hissing through his gap. When he finally regained control, he said, “That hurts,” and wiped his eyes.
He didn’t sound like a monkey. He didn’t sound like a vacuum cleaner. No, he sounded like pure joy. Ever since that fun we had with the tape recorder, when I hear the word, Lassie, I grin.
Daniel G. Ford, Ph. D.