How Humor Works
Richard W. Horton <em>Some information about Brownson, KS in Aug. 1937: there’s a decent hotel, a fine eating place, and a grassy park next to the court house where you’ll see the bronze statue of Orestes Brownson, and next to it a WWI howitzer. There are no parking meters, but there are hitching posts, largely ignored these days. What else can I say? The Brownson Tigers are likely to beat Lawrence this year. There’s a literary salon that gathers above McGee’s Book Store Wednesdays. Bet you thought you could call us Hicks! Naw!</em> <strong>1 .At The Gym</strong> Penny McGee got under the bleachers in the gym with her broom, and the noises it made smacking into things must have alerted one of the speaker’s prep men. He came running, and peeked under at her, holding his suit jacket closed, I guess so his tie wouldn’t hang out. Or…? For a moment he had a worried look, but then smiled and waved. “Just checkin’!” he said. She glared. Checkin’ what? And who was this bird that was coming, this lefty speaker? How did he rate prep guys? One thing she knew: the union rep didn’t like him. She finished, got out and worked the pile down the front of the bleachers to the trash cans not too far from the microphone Ed, the electrician, was working on. The mayor walked in from the back, followed by a second prep guy (or bodyguard?) who had checked the showers and locker spaces. The prep guy told the mayor, “I work for an agency. We just do our job!” Ed said, “Ever play any basketball?” “No, but I follow the Chicago team.” “Is that where the funny man is from?” “Mr. Paulsen? No, he’s from New York.” While saying it, he was looking at Penny. She said, “What are you looking at me for? You’re like him, like Paulsen! A letcher!” “Sorry. You were lookin’, so I looked. I won’t mash on you, Penny! Not unless you want me to!” “I’ll hit you if you try to!” As she rushed home to change (because the staff had been given free tickets), she wondered why the prep guy had known her name. Maybe he also knew she’d voted for the President, in ’36, even though her sister Lu-Ann belonged to the John Reed Club, and would have voted for Stalin, if he’d run. <strong>2. At The Hotel</strong> In room 3b at the Worthington Hotel in Brownson center, Jack Paulsen had his note pad out. He was hunched over a little table by his bed, his long legs, in light brown slacks, sticking out. He was smiling. It must have been one of the jokes he would put in his speech about the psychology of humor. But no, I take that back. It was a line that would go in a letter to Leon Davidovich Trotsky in Mexico. He knew Trotsky would wrinkle his nose, and be impatient if Paulsen tried to joke with him in his letter. Then Leon Davidovich’s wife would worry that he might have eaten something nasty. Then…Jack did actually remember a joke, and began deconstructing it on the notepad. Jack had mailed copies of his 1936 humor book to Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Walt Disney, H. L. Mencken, James Thurber, a psychology professor at U.MI. and one at Columbia. He did not mail one to Leon Davidovich Trotsky, though he was sorely tempted, just to get the bearded guy’s goat. He mentioned the book to Mary McCarthy, but then felt pathetic, holding a drink and hawking a book at a Partisan Review party where people were trying to have fun. A little later, she climbed on his lap anyway. The old socialist magazine he used to run, which was now Stalinist, had squirted bird droppings on the new book, with a review called, “What?? And Why??” The reviewer used to be a dear sweet friend. <strong>3. In Moscow</strong> Over in Moscow, Stalin was on the toilet reading a paperback, not Paulsen’s, and some wonk was outside the door talking about Paulsen. Josef Vissarionovich said “Who?” “The ‘Lenin testament’ guy.” “I didn’t read it. How is it?” “…ah!…Understood! Anyway, some nut in Kansas wants to off Paulsen.” “He does? Interesting. I heard Paulsen was on the move. Trying to escape his many failures, I imagine.” “Yes.” “Now he’s even been smoked out of New York! Astonishing! The useless loafer thinks there’s a gold field in the central and western departments of the United States. But in the American west, there are cowboys who shoot guns at each other. Dangerous place!” The toilet paper roll spun noisily. Stalin chuckled. “Instead of gold he might find lead. Well! I always knew he was a species of alchemist! Here! Take this!” Stalin handed the paperback out the partially opened door. On the cover was a pretty secretary, a train, the Eiffel Tower, and a crouching gangster holding a gun. The toilet flushed loudly. <strong>4. At the hotel, Kansas, U.S.A.</strong> If Paulsen had guessed what Mr. Smiles had just said about him, he would of course have deconstructed it and written a note to self. <strong>5. At the gym, then it flips to Topeka, 1917</strong> Out at the high school grounds, the mayor and assistant mayor came walking out of the gym. The fat jovial mayor turned around and looked at the huge brick barn, which is what the gym looked like, and shook his head. The little town of Brownson hadn’t funded a municipal auditorium, when they learned there might be a W.P.A. grant in the offing. But Jack Paulsen settling for a small town HS gym? That was sad. He used to get big civic centers overflowing with mad-as-hell laborers yelling and raising their fists when he told them Wilson’s war would not only yank them away from their nests and stuff them into uniforms, but when they came back their wages would be too low to live on. Get you going, and get you coming! In 1917, the mayor had been a college kid. He’d taken the bus to Topeka to hear Paulsen, though all his relatives, the dentist, the doctor, school chums and mom & dad, wanted America to go on and fight, and get it over with. Patriot gangs were meeting near the auditorium, singing songs, slapping each other’s backs, and handing out lead pipes and baseball bats. They had an American answer to Paulsen’s communist yappings. Yeah, he was a Bolshie! You couldn’t be stupid enough not to know that! Paulsen’s host family had put their gassed-up automobile at their back door in case Paulsen had to escape during the night. The 19 year old future mayor got to the civic auditorium and heard Paulsen, or tried to. The lanky, handsome speaker with his long face and thick light brown hair had to raise his voice to be heard, but otherwise looked bored and a little amused. Wearers of overalls and big shoes, he said, were, or should be, the deciders in the new world which was being born. Events in Russia in the past October had proved that laborers had the brains to be their own bosses. The Russian Duma was now a worker’s council, dispensing wise decisions. But what was happening in the U. S. of A.? And here he held his hand laconically out, palm up. Working stiffs, not you, my friends, but everybody else, workers I say, are getting all hopped up and rushing down to enlist and put on a uniform to do the business of tycoons who want to shake the tree or the dice… overseas, over there, yes, over there! And suppose those boys get their head shot off, why…the tycoons will just wave the flag some more, and Johnnie will come home in a box. Now… Yells and whistles erupted. Just then the lobby door opened and men in checkered shirts carrying clubs and flags marched in , singing “Onward Christian Soldiers.” From the side of the stage, the organizers were hissing and waving at Paulsen trying to get him to stop talking and come over where they could get him out of the building. It was winter and one of them was holding a coat open for him to get into. An automobile was chugging out in the snow, but Paulsen started talking again, welcoming the new arrivals. “There’s room enough here for us all, friends!” and on and on. The roughnecks were a little puzzled that he didn’t try to run off. They figured they were going to get him anyway, so they stopped to listen, just for the hell of it. Turned out, they had grievances too, and he was very sympathetic, a kind of sleek greyhound up there on the stage, who could talk like a hickory-handled Sigmund Freud. He’d read everything by Freud, and grafted it to vaudeville and hard-cider populism, and now the plugs were telling him their troubles and he was just spinning their wheel. Later on, when he was in the little Ford, more or less escaping, you might say, the plugs shook their heads and woke up plenty sore, ran out and piled on a truck to chase him, but it was too late. Damn dangerous business, pacifism! <strong>6. At the hotel</strong> Back at the Worthington, Paulsen got up and opened his window. He leaned on the sill and looked out at the sunny, sleepy town, his nose coming close to the screen, which smelled like dust and iron. There were shrubs, a curb, round-shaped cars. He could see up the street. There’d been a get-together the previous night at the Mayor’s, and a pair of eyes had come close. A mouth under the eyes had said something in an unconcerned way, and cocked ironic. He’d been unconcerned too. Just let it play. Women read men fairly accurately. Her name was Sally. She wanted him to know her name and not call her “Hey, you!” She also wanted him to know she knew. About him. “Oh, that! Those stories!” (chuckle) “Mm-hmm!” “Well, Sally… And segue to the hotel room, his long face looking out at the street. Looking downward. The wrist watch floating up. 3:20. A soft crunch. Someone getting out of a car down the street. OK, then, here we go! In 1920 Paulsen had been in Europe. Having read everything he could find by Freud, Adler and Jung, he’d gone to visit a somewhat cranky Freud, who had received one of Paulsen’s books in the mail, the one debunking marriage, freeing the sex act from shame, and proposing obligation-free serial sexual experiences. Paulsen found himself dismissed and walking out the door before he said, “Wait a minute! There are other topics, you know!” and he verbally fought his way back in, as the old man waved a hand disgustedly and said, “Very well, have it your way, but you’re not going to like what I have to say. But first…” (and he made a gracious low bow which was almost convincing) “…thank you for your…reconstructions of my case studies. You shouldn’t have!” And Freud handed back Paulsen’s book, bound in dark red Morocco. Paulsen raised his palm. “No! No! It’s inscribed to you, Herr Doctor! It’s yours!” With a sigh of regret, Freud put the book back on his desk. “Now Mr. Paulsen, you may not believe it, but I feel affection for all my patients, and I sincerely wish for them a satisfactory adjustment and return to health. I help them, with their own words, to medicate themselves. But in your case, that would be a bad idea. You would simply pull yourself apart!” Paulsen was smiling now. A game! A game! Freud noticed, and sighed. “You have in your little book picked apart my ideas. That’s fine! But where’s the resolution? Sex, now. Yes, sexual urges must be acknowledged. But must there then be an abandonment of every relationship afterward? Are we not to hold together in any fashion? Are we not to own anything? I have children and a wife, Mr. Paulsen. I’m not the best of fathers or the best husband, but I am here! I am here! You are creating in your life a psychological junk yard.” Socialism and free love. It was all about not owning anything, but it was more than that. Freud was right, but he was wrong too, as Paulsen explained later in his deconstruction of his talk with Freud. Paulsen would be the first to admit the free love conclusions he had come to were a patchwork beast. And was it free free love, or was he a piece of furniture for the rebellious, the temporarily lonely, and the hedonistic? There was a soft knock on the door. At 4:30, after the events in the room, whatever they might have been, Sally said, “Can I have this?” Jack, who was putting on a tie, said, “Yeah. It’s fluff, though.” She folded and pocketed the scrap of paper. It really was fluff. (on the scrap) I experience (it) I am not placed I do not own what I do It’s not even a what It’s doing <strong>7. The McGee Apartment</strong> Penny McGee and her husband (and sister and mama) lived in a walk-up next to the laundry. The apt. had a window looking down on the street, and the girls were gossipy. Penny’s sister Lu-Ann was at work at the bookstore down the street. There had been a storage room upstairs from the bookstore, but it had been cleaned and swept. Lu-Ann was a poet who had friends who wrote, one of whom, Chester, was Lu-Ann’s fiancé. So that space up there was used for Wednesday night poetry readings, though boxes and supplies were still stored there too, kind of over in a corner. It was Chester’s idea to put a hand-lettered sign in the front window: “John Reed Club.” The poetry readings, well, yeah, you could read poetry all right, and it didn’t have to be political, but if the reader suddenly started bellyaching about the Moscow trials, or saying where, oh where, did pure revolution go, or calling Stalin a dirty dog, the other poets, sitting around in wooden folding chairs, and Chester standing over by the literature table, would educate the guy or gal making all that racket. Anyway, Penny walks into her apartment, and her mama, sitting by the window, says, “The English teacher has her car parked in front of Spruell’s.” “That’s nice. Did Henry telephone and say he would come to Paulsen’s talk?” The mom looked disappointed. No bite on the English teacher. “Nope. Guess he’ll stay late.” “Well, darn! I’ll get letched to death at that speech and then won’t have anybody to eat with at Spruell’s after that.” “I’ll go if I have to.” “Well, you better hurry up and get a dress on. I’m going over to Lu-Ann’s.” “Why?” “I want to see if the bookstore has anything by Jack Paulsen.” <strong>8. At Lu-Ann’s Books</strong> In the bookstore Penny yelled, “Jack Paulsen! P-A-U-L-S-E-N!” “Don’t know any writer named Jack Polecat. I could ask Lu-Ann…Lu-Ann!” Jerry, the assistant, had put his hands to his mouth and called his boss like she was on the other side of a mountain. She was right next to him, taking books out of a box. “We don’t have any Polecats in this store, honey!” she said. <strong>9. At Spruell’s</strong> The mayor’s car pulled up and parked in back of Sally Donaldson’s 1931 Plymouth. Sally, walking breezily toward it, stopped and found something interesting to look at in the boot shop window. She was much too pretty and female to be looking at work boots, so she backtracked a little, and checked out the bookshop window. Now here was something Jack might be interested in. Lessons Of The Second International. Should she assign it to her class? Maybe not. The assistant mayor got out first, stretched, and rubbed his stomach. The mayor got out. “Yes-sir!” said the assistant mayor. “Smart idea, boss! I didn’t eat breakfast or lunch either!” The mayor passed him and went into Spruell’s. The assistant looked up the street, saw Sally looking at books, went “Mm-mm!” and went in. Sally waited a few moments, then moved toward her car. The mayor would be greeting the other early bird diners, and haw-hawing. She slipped into her car and drove off. Otis, the proprietor, seated the 2 men in white shirts with rolled up sleeves at the table by the front window. The assistant mayor said, “I speck Brownson is going to whip Lawrence this year!” Two guys in the nearby booth liked the sound of that, so there was noisy basketball talk for a while, then the 2 guys got up and left, and the assistant said,. “What’s the deal with Paulsen?” “Well, his book royalties are down and he has some bills. He invested in a film about the Romanovs and the other guy hogged the profits. It’s just a little setback, but he figured, what the heck, I like the heartland, I like the people there, they always say howdy and I’m not getting that in New York, noooooo! A friend told him, don’t be so predictable, Jack, there are people out there now who would just love to catch you strolling across Union Square after midnight, now, you’re scaring me, Jack, being so predictable! “Old Uncle Joe over in Moscow didn’t like it one bit when Jack split the whole wide world in half by saying Stalin, Kamenev, Zinoviev and the others already had a machine going while Lenin was on his death bed. Roughnecks and psychopaths were let loose even as Lenin’s coffin was rolling down the avenue toward the mausoleum. Jack’s book even caught Trotsky by surprise. Trotsky had still been in Moscow wearing his commander’s uniform, trying to make nice with Stalin, but that went to hell. Just as Jack was saying the Revolution was dead in Russia, Stalin latched onto his world network and I mean hard. The idea was, look, Stalinism is alive, it’s there, you look at it and it looks back at you. What do you want? Ask Stalin. Maybe he’ll get it for you. Ask the purists, ask Trotsky and he’ll tell you to go to the moon! Jack came back from Russia, and, oh, they had a banquet for him at a big hall! Five people showed up! Jack’s like…wha…? His publisher was as good as gold, taking a hit on Jack’s next few books. They were communist books that communists didn’t read. Jack knew it, so he saw no reason to toe any line. He said Marx wasn’t Jesus. He was a scholar. An organization was a good as its people. Americans had the know-how to get out and get under the Marxist automobile and make it work in Detroit, in Denver, or in Podunk. Eventually he found himself asking the ultimate question: is it simply impossible to get workers to run a country, even if the machine doesn’t move in? Maybe unions are the best anyone can do!” Otis said, “You guys quit plotting, now!” and set their house platters down by their coffees. “So now it’s humor!” said his assistant. “Humor in America! God, yes! That sells!” <strong>10. At Kansas Custodial</strong> Out on Route 30, at Kansas Custodial, the window guys were picking up their supplies and tools. Contract with Brownson I.S.D. to do the windows on the school gym, the ones high up on the wall, Aug. 15, 1937. How to get up there? Well, a contact at the school had hung a catwalk under the whole row of windows on the west wall. Should have been the east wall, for tactical reasons, but the east wall faced the highway, which would be getting some traffic as the custodians were trying to set up. Someone might even tell them to get the hell down off the wall. Then their custodial tools might be examined. Clunk! The canvas-wrapped tools went into the back of the van. They closed the doors, walked around the van in their khaki work outfits, and hopped in front. On the way to the gym, they talked about the Spanish Civil War as the radio played Bing Crosby. <strong>11. At the gym</strong> Ed had spent the afternoon running to get extension cords for the movie projector, and moving the projector and the screen around. 5 O’clock was a bad time to show a movie, with the light from the west windows slanting down and hitting the east wall. Maybe Paulsen could just talk and not show a movie, but, no, a filmed interview with Groucho Marx was something you didn’t see every day. The west windows had no curtains and had never had them. For indoor sports, that was good. He moved the screen over to the west wall. The podium and the basketball net board in back of it were flooded with light, and the east wall looked like another screen, and here came people trooping in already. They all sat down in the shady west wall bleachers, and he knew they weren’t going to go sit on the east side where the sun would blind them. He sighed, went to the projector, and turned it. The basketball net board was casting a shadow. He took the screen and put it in the shadow. “Shit! I’m screwed!” he muttered. Five O’clock came. Sally Donaldson was there in the shadows somewhere. Penny McGee and her mom came in and scurried to find a seat as the mayor stepped into the sunlight and started things. He spent some time talking about how he met Jack Paulsen and how he had cracked up when Paulsen’s humor book came out in ’36. He’d read all of it, not just the jokes, that were in a different type and easy to find, and, darn it, it made sense! Jack…say, wasn’t there another Jack, named Jack Benny? And Jack Paulsen was just as funny. Sure he was! Jack Benny and Jack Paulsen were both going to give Adolf Hitler a gut punch, with comedy, which he couldn’t stand, if the U.S.A. ever had to fight the Nazis. Yes, they would seriously weaken him with American humor, before American and English fighting men came to deliver the knockout! Penny McGee felt a tap on her shoulder, and looked around. There was Chester, sitting there grinning, with his elbows on his grasshopper knees. “We’re the ones that are going to clock Hitler!” he whispered. “Mighty Joe Stalin, me, and Lu-Ann! Ka-pow!” Looking at the wall glare, then his watch, the mayor delivered a long flowery introduction for his old buddy Paulsen. Paulsen, when he got behind the microphone, looked both amused and affectionate. He started out by saying, “Let’s have a show of hands! How many of you have read “Praise Of Folly” by Erasmus of Rotterdam?” Smiling glibly, he waved his own hand in the air. No one else stirred. Sally Donaldson had read it, but she didn’t want a bunch of men cow-eyeing her. “Folks, when I tell you how humor works, and start pulling jokes apart, breaking them into their components, it’s going to be about as funny as an autopsy class in medical school!” Everyone laughed, which put him off his rhythm. An autopsy class was funny? Well, OK, maybe it was! “Uh…it’ll be about as funny as a little boy torturing a bug!” The bleachers erupted in howls. Torturing a bug? Who were these people? They must really like torturing bugs! Yech! “Why…it’ll be about as funny as…what?…Marxism after I got through with it!” A roar came from the bleachers. Oh-ho-ho! Marxism in ruins! “Jeese!” said Paulsen. He was the only straight man in the room. The audience was tipping back, hooting at the ceiling, pounding their knees and their sides. He muttered, “Oh…my…dear…god! Am I in hell?” “No, but you will be!” yelled a man’s voice from the crowd. That was the final touch. People in the front row fell off the bench and rolled in the floor, howling. Paulsen turned around. Shadows of 2 crouching gunmen froze, on the brightly lit wall in back of him, as if hoping not to be detected. The shadows cautiously looked at each other, then turned their heads toward Paulsen, and slowly hunkered down. A gale of laughter came from the crowd as 2 other shadows appeared at either side of the wall glare, and crept toward the first 2 shadows, with pistols extended. Sneak, sneak, sneak! Gonna take ‘m by surprise! The audience roared again, some bellowing, some squeaking harshly in the high registers. It was then that Paulsen thought to look at the west windows. The armed silhouettes were ready to shoot, now. The prep guy silhouettes, standing next to them, nonchalantly tapped them on the shoulder. The hit guys jerked, got real still, then looked slowly up into the prep guys’ gun barrels. Their rifles cautiously went down, till they could drop them, and their hands went up. The crowd whistled and clapped, except for Chester, who got up and stalked out. “Don’t leave mad!” called Jack Paulsen. Ed the electrician walked over to the mayor, who said, “Ed! You’re radiant! What’s up, buddy!” “Mayor, we can’t fight the sun in Kansas in August! What say we set this baby up in your reception room and watch Groucho there?” Paulsen came up and slapped both men on the shoulder. “Sounds like a plan!” he said. <strong>12. At the mayor’s</strong> “The big point I really would have made…the point…ah! Thanks!…Here’s to Marxism!…The point, I say, is this: most jokes tell a story about some poor shmuck who thinks he’s going to inherit the moon…that’s why comedy is tragedy…anyway, he thinks he’s going to win big, inherit a fortune, something nutty like that, and then his ridiculous hope gets shot down…bang! Set ‘em up and shoot ‘em down! Charlie was so good at that. Or communism, say…now why’s everyone laughing?” <em>Writer fussings</em> <em>Paulsen is obviously based on Max Eastman. The background and character are fact-based, but all action and dialogue are fictional. I thought it would probably be unlikely that there would be a Kansas town named after a New England philosopher of the 1830’s, so I went ahead with Brownson. History of basketball in Kansas: up and going in ‘37. The events taking place from 2 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Aug. 15, 1937 never happened. I was personally curious what might have happened to my characters after 1937.</em> <em>Sally was glad she did it. She always thought it had freed her in some way, especially after reading Paulsen’s book about the poetic mind.</em> <em>Chester suffered a nervous breakdown after the Hitler-Stalin pact, left Lu-Ann and bummed around in California. In 1953 he voted for Eisenhower</em> <em>Lu-Ann remained a Stalinist, though she did take down the John Reed Club sign after Chester left..</em> <em>The mayor kept getting re-elected. His speeches got more and more corny.</em> <em>The assistant mayor became a radio sports announcer, after serving as an army officer in the Pacific in WWII.</em> <em>The two hit guys claimed to be misdirected hunters.</em> <em>Penny continued what she was doing. Lots more guys letched on her, but learned their lesson when she decked them. When her mom and Lu-Ann moved into the room above the bookstore, she and Henry started having kids.</em> <em>The mom had to work in the bookstore after Jerry joined the Navy.</em> <em>Jack Paulsen got back some respect after the Hitler-Stalin pact, and was solicited for polit-articles by Look, Life, and even Readers Digest. He declined to join </em> <em>the New Center in ’46. That would be joining, wouldn’t it? HUAC? Joe McCarthy and the gang waved him through the checkpoint, though he hated them. He didn’t have to spill, though there were plenty of…whoa! Let’s not get into that!</em> <em>I thought I was through fussing, but one of my characters wants to talk. She’s in her 90’s now, wears men’s clothes, and smokes a pipe. It’s raining outside the bookstore, which survived HUAC, Reagan, tornadoes and the tea party. Tea is in fact steaming in a clear Russian tea glass sitting in a tarnished silver holder on a book crate. “It wasn’t about Stalin,” she says, “Hitler, Ribbentrop, none of that, the gulags, </em><em>nada. It was about workers pushing back, making the plutocrats back down. Have you noticed that NPR is afraid to talk about Woody Guthrie now? Pathetic. You’ve given it all away, being reasonable. The ‘60’s rad cream puffs talked about individuality. Well, let’s see their great accomplishments. What I really miss is the big brotherhood, the callused hands picking you up and putting you back on your feet.”</em> Richard Horton began his writing career in Austin, where he organized readings, was featured, and published locally and in Ark River Review and Interstate. He is currently connected with writing groups in Northampton and Easthampton, MA. The research behind "How Humor Works" might be interesting to know. He spent 3 or 4 years researching the '30's and '40's and compiling a book-length timeline with micro-essays, just out of curiosity and for the fun of it. His books include "<a href="https://www.amazon.com/dp/0997529814">Sticks & Bones</a>" published by <a href="http://meatfortea.com/press.htm">Meat For Tea Press</a>.