Mulla Nasrudin Taking Humor

"Humor must not professedly teach and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever."
Mark Twain

      I see humor as the higher capability and disposition of Intelligence, 1  which enables persons who develop this organ to comprehend Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Humor is a part of the philosopher's armamentarium with which he seeks wisdom. It is not the mere ability to laugh at ribald buffoonery or mindless inanity--as is now supposed. It is a definite organ of comprehension which requires disciplined practice and a finely honed sensibility.

     Humor is a fundamental power of the human soul and an objective criterion by which we distinguish between the good and the bad, the true and the false, the genuine and the counterfeit, and the mature and the immature. If most people no longer possess this higher capability--do not even know of its existence--this does not mean that this organ is not presently active in those who apprehend and exercise it.

     True humor has been employed by sages from the beginning of recorded history. We see Socrates' subtle humor in Plato's Ion in which the pomposity and self-deception of the self-appointed Homer-expert is made embarassingly apparent. As with all Perennialist sages, Socrates fought against the degrading tendencies and institutions of his day with the higher powers of humor. Plato attacked the excesses of the sophists who trained young men in nothing other than propaganda and pompous oratory, by revealing their vain pedantry and pomposity in his dialogues.

     In his Encomium Moraie (In Praise of Folly) Erasmus [1466-1536] introduced the Medieval literary form, which was used most successfully by many others as well, to combat dogmatic and literal religious faith and pedantic and pretentious clerics. In this work, Erasmus satirizes the officious scholar who can explain everything as though he were privy to the eternal secrets of the universe. Throughout the entire Renaissance period, humor played a major role in freeing humankind from the degredation and ignorance of the Dark Ages.

"Along with all the other fundamental powers of the intellect to which it gave new form, the Renaissance also endowed the comic with new force and new meaning. Our conception of the Renaissance would remain fragmentary and incomplete, if we were to forget this aspect of the comic. . .   It was first in the realm of the comic that this spirit celebrated its highest triumphs and won its decisive victories. These types of the comic are most diverse; they are nationally coloured and conditioned in the extreme. But in all its variations the comic performs, nevertheless, a certain similar intellectual task. . .   Everywhere it is striving towards one principal goal, the goal of liberation. Renaissance emancipation from all the forces that were binding it to the past, Ship of Foolsto tradition and to authority, is really achieved only when it succeeds in reflecting these forces in the comic mirror. In this mirror Boccaccio in the Decameron views monasticism, and Cervantes chivalry. The Renaissance power of comic representation thus belongs inseparably and essentially to its power of action, to its vital and creative energies. Yet, if the comic thus became the strongest aggressive weapon of modern times, its effect was, on the other hand, to take away the violence and bitterness of that struggle out of which the modern era arose. For the comic spirit contains also an element of balance and reconciliation. It does not entertain feelings of hatred towards the world which its free play is destroying, which it cannot but negate; on the contrary, the comic spirit forms rather the last glorification of this decadent world. . .  Thus in this power of the comic lives the power of love which will and can understand even that form of the world which the intellect must abandon and surmount. Love cannot check the process of destruction, but it retains in the image that which must perish in reality."

Ernst Cassirer, The Platonic Renaissance in England, 1953

"Humor is not a mood but a way of looking at the world. So if it is correct to say that humor was stamped out in Nazi Germany, that does not mean that people were not in good spirits, or anything of that sort, but something much deeper and more important"

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), Austrian philosopher

     We can gain the clearest understanding of how humor can be used to overcome the dark agencies of ignorance and tyranny, by studying how Shakespeare used comedy to defeat the noxious influences of his day. We must first recognize that with Shakespeare language is a distinct higher realm with a literal magic of its own. He creates a palpable medium with language within which operate his characters, his mood-tones, his ideas, and his inimitable ways of affecting us as hearers and readers. We realize that with Shakespeare, words are not mere denotations of "things." Words take on a life of their own and at times we suddenly recognize, unaware, that Shakespeare is playing word games or creating a word-image or moving us to feel in most surprising ways.

     As in our present day, Shakespeare also lived in a time when political and religious forces were trying to destroy human intelligence and sensibility. Puritanism was Shakespeare's life-long enemy, and he struggled against it brilliantly, with humor as one of his most potent weapons. Puritanism nursed a deadly animus against the theatre and all dramatic art, viewing them as Satan's hotbed of temptation. Shakespeare recognized that he was in what he called in Love's Labour's Lost, a "civil war of wits." [Act II, Scene I]

     Shakespeare used humor to put things into their rightful place in the scale of human value. He undermines Puritanism by creating the immortal figure of Malvolio in Twelfth Knight.

     In describing Malvolio, Maria expressly calls him "a kind of puritan." [Act II, Scene III] Malvolio brings the conspiracy of Maria and the others on himself. We see clearly his self-righteousness and pomposity in his own behavior and words, and Sir Toby denounces him, "Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?" Malvolio--as the personification of Puritanism--is the sworn enemy of merriment and high spirit, so wit will have its day.

     In the character of Malvolio we see the clear visage of the spoil-sport, the over-fastidious, and the pretender to virtue. Olivia pierces through to his true nature: "O! you are sick of self-love, Malvolio," she accuses him, "and taste with a distempered appetite to be generous, guiltless, and of free disposition, is to take those things for bird-bolts that you deem cannon-bullets. There is no slander in an allowed fool, though he do nothing but rail; nor no railing in a known discreet man, though he do nothing but reprove." [I,V]

     With his rapier-sharp wit, Shakespeare exposes Malvolio's puritanical arrogance and pretentiousness as pomposity and grandiosity. Yet Shakespeare's humour never stoops to mere character assassination but a levelling out of seemingly unequal conditions. In an interesting psychic twist, we are made to feel somewhat ashamed at the excess to which Malvolio's tormentors go, and he becomes in the end merely an unfortunate dunce.

     Through his creative use of humor, Shakespeare allows us to see things as they really are. When we discern their true images mirrored by the elemental power of humor, we recognise their actual importance--and unimportance. His humor helps us to realign our priorities and place things in their true perspective, to understand our scene in a larger drama and how to play our role as is becoming and proper in the momentary theater of history. And this, in the end, is our primary task: keeping clearly in mind the higher realities in the face of evil and corruption.

    "A comic character is generally comic in proportion to his ignorance of himself."
    Henri Bergson. "Laughter"

"There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes and those who do not."

Robert Benchley

Not Taking Humor Seriously By Studying Humor Scholastically

     Beginning in the late 1960s the first "serious" studies on laughter and humor began to appear in scientific journals, using psychological, physiological, sociological and psychiatric approaches to the subject. In 1969 Jacob Levine published his study, "Motivation in Humor," and in 1972 Jeffrey Goldstein and Paul McGhee edited a volume on "The Psychology of Humor." In England, Antony Chapman and Hugh Foot brought out their collection "Humour and Laughter: Theory, Research and Applications." It was published in 1976, the same year that they jointly chaired the First International Conference on Humour and Laughter under the auspices of the British Psychological Association in Cardiff.

"Your manuscript is both good and original; but the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.
Samuel Johnson

All those who believe in psychokinesis raise my hand.

42.7 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot.

I was walking down the street and all of a sudden the prescription for my eye-glasses ran out ....

What's another word for thesaurus?

Last year I went fishing with Salvador Dali. He was using a dotted line. He caught every other fish.

I got a new shadow. I had to get rid of the other one -- it wasn't doing what I was doing.

Stephen Wright

What is a Pun?

     "In Italian, 'puntiglio' means 'a fine point,' hence a verbal quibble, and is most likely the source of the English 'punctilious.' There developed in late 17th- and early 18th- century England a short-lived, fanciful word 'pundigrion,' which indeed was a term for what we now know as a pun. Since snappy monosyllables produced by breaking off pieces of longer words were all the rage back then, it is widely thought that this is how and where the word 'pun' was created.

     "A pun is defined by Webster as 'the humorous use of a word, or of words which are formed or sounded alike but have different meanings, in such a way as to play on two or more of the possible applications; a play on words.'

     "In describing the various forms of verbal humor, The New Encyclopaedia Britannica refers to a pun as 'two disparate strings of thought tied together by an acoustic knot.' That analogy strikes a very pleasant cord!

     "In France, paronomasia is referred to as jeu de mots. That has a Nice ring to it, n'est pas?

     "What is paronomasia?      The act or practice of punning. And as every ecclesiastical dean knows so well, 'practice makes prefect.'"

Take my wife jokes, please.

A Tribute to Henny Youngman  

How to Watch a Chess Match

     "The first problem confronting the chess spectator is to find some people who are playing.  . . .   At first you may think that they are both dead, but a mirror held to the lips of the nearest contestant will probably show moisture (unless, of course, they really should be dead, which would be a horrible ending for a little lark like this. I once heard of a murderer who propped his two victims up against a chess board in sporting attitudes and was able to get as far as Seattle before his crime was discovered)."


"It's a sobering thought that by the time Mozart was my age, he'd been dead for five years."
Tom Lehrer

"The future ain't what it used to be." Yogi Berra

     The Mulla walked into a shop one day.
     The owner came forward to serve him.
     "First things first," said Nasrudin; "did you see me
     walk into your shop?"
     "Of course."
     "Have you ever seen me before?"
"Never in my life."
"Then how do you know it is me?"

Idries Shah, The Sufis

Fool, n. A person who pervades the domain of intellectual speculation and diffuses himself through the channels of moral activity. He is omnific, omniform, omnipercipient, omniscient, omnipotent. He it was who invented letters, printing, the railroad, the steamboat, the telegraph, the platitude, and the circle of the sciences. He created patriotism and taught nations war--founded theology, philosophy, law, medicine, and Chicago. He established monarchical and republican government. He is from everlasting to everlasting--such as creation's dawn beheld he fooleth now. In the morning of time he sang upon primitive hills, and in the noonday of existence headed the procession of being. His grandmotherly hand has warmly tucked-in the set sun of civilization, and in the twilight he prepares Man's evening meal of milk-and-morality and turns down the covers of the universal grave. And after the rest of us shall have retired for the night of eternal oblivion he will sit up to write a history of human civilization.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

     Theories of Humor:

  • Superiority: laughter is an expression of a person's feelings of superiority over other people

  • Incongruity: amusement is an intellectual reaction to something that is unexpected, illogical, or inappropriate in some other way

  • Relief: laughter is a venting of nervous energy

  1. One who is regarded as deficient in judgment, sense, or understanding.
  2. One who acts unwisely on a given occasion: I was a fool to have refused the job.
  3. One who has been tricked or made to appear ridiculous; a dupe: They made a fool of me by pretending I won the award.
  4. Informal. A person with a talent or an enthusiasm for a certain activity: a dancing fool; a fool for skiing.
  5. A member of a royal or noble household who provided entertainment, as with jokes or antics; a jester.
  6. A dessert made of stewed or puréed fruit mixed with cream or custard and served cold.
  7. Archaic. A mentally deficient person; an idiot.

"Experiments with laboratory rats have shown that, if one psychologist in the room laughs at something a rat does, all of the other psychologists in the room will laugh equally."

Garrison Keillor

Tom Swifty

     "Tom Swifty is a play on words that derives its humor on a punning relationship between the way an adverb describes a speaker, and at the same time refers significantly to the context of the speaker's statement. Huh? Here's an example: "Take the prisoner downstairs," Tom said condescendingly. The adverb 'condescendingly' makes a double pun on the related words 'con' (prisoner) and 'descending' (downstairs).

     "The original Tom Swift was a fictional title character in a series of childrens books written by Edward L. Stratemeyer (1862-1930). The adventure stories depicted young Tom as an ingenious man whose amazing inventions took him to unusual places around the world. In these books, Stratemeyer always avoided using the word 'said' alone in describing Tom's utterances; Tom asserted, averred, chortled, declared, expostulated, grimaced, grinned, groaned, quipped, smiled, etc. Or if he was ever reported to have 'said' something, Stratemeyer would add an adverb to provide a more colorful impact.

     "Eventually, someone decided to satirize the mannerism by using punning adverbs, and the Tom Swifty was born! A similar satirization whereby a verb supplies the pun instead of an adverb, has been termed 'croaker' (coined by Roy Bongartz): 'I'm dying," he croaked.'"

Jester or Joker:

fool, silly fool, tomfool, madman, buffoon, clown, comic, jester, zany, merry-andrew, harlequin, entertainer, perfect fool, complete idiot, ninny, nincompoop, ass, jackass, donkey, goose, turkey, cuckoo, mooncalf, zombie, idiot, congenital idiot, born fool, natural, mongol, cretin, moron, imbecile, mental defective, half-wit, dimwit, sot, stupid, silly, silly-billy, twerp, stooge, butt, laughingstock, madcap, desperado, addlehead, fathead, pinhead, muddlehead, blunderer, incompetent, twit, clot, bungler, scatterbrains, birdbrain, featherbrain, dingbat, rattlehead, giddy-head, flibbertigibbet, trifler, sciolist, witling, wiseacre, crackpot, eccentric, odd fellow, crank, gaffer, old fogy, babbler, burbler, driveler, dotard, old man, humorist, wit, bel-esprit, epigrammatist, reparteeist, conversationalist, card, character, life and soul of the party, wag, wisecracker, japer, joker, Joe Miller, jokesmith, funny man, gagsman, gagster, punster, banterer, persifleur, leg-puller, kidder, tease, practical joker, hoaxer, deceiver, ironist, affecter, mocker, scoffer, satirist, lampooner, detracter, comedian, comedienne, comic, standup comic, slapstick comic, knockabout comic, comic writer, cartoonist, caricaturist, burlesquer, impersonator, parodist, imitator, raconteur, raconteuse

"Hitler was so wary of the danger of humor to the Third Reich that he had special 'joke courts' set up for, among other things, punishing people who named their dogs and horses 'Adolph.' As Hermann Goering instructed the Academy of German Law, the telling of a joke could be an act against the Fuehrer, against the state, or even against the whole Nazi Weltanschaung."

Taking Laughter Seriously
by John Morreall

     "Every American, to the last man, lays claim to a 'sense' of humor and guards it as his most significant spiritual trait, yet rejects humor as a contaminating element wherever found. America is a nation of comics and comedians; nevertheless, humor has no stature and is accepted only after the death of the perpetrator."

E. B. White, "The Humor Paradox,"
New Yorker , 27 September, 1952

Victor Hugo: "Le calembour est la fiente de l'esprit qui vole." "Puns are the feints of soaring wits."

A reader of this article, David Herz, wrote to ask if he could use the essay in "a comedy class which I will be teaching in a French (yes) Engineering (yes again) school (triple yes)." David says that "according to Le Robert Dictionnaire Historique de la Langue Française fiente in French from the popular (wildly!) 12th Century Latin femita which gives us fumier (both compost and lowlife) is animal excrement (usually birds)." So according to David, Hugo's definition should read:

"Puns are the bird droppings of soaring wits."


     "Named after Rev. W.A. Spooner (1844-1930), a distinguised Anglican clergyman and warden of New College, Oxford, England, a spoonerism is an unintential interchange of sounds, usually initial sounds, in two or more words, often with a resultant comical effect. Examples: 'hush my brat' for 'brush my hat' or 'scoop of boy trouts' for 'troop of boy scouts' or 'I have a half-warmed fish in my mind' for 'I have a half-formed wish in my mind.' Spooner was reportedly a nervous man who committed many of these verbal witticisms, albeit unintentionally."

Two of the Marx Brothers

"Time wounds all heels."

"The natural free spirits of ingenious men, if imprisoned or controlled, will find other ways of motion to relieve themselves in their constraint; and whether it be burlesque, mimicry or buffoonery, they will be glad at any rate to vent themselves, and be revenged on their constrainers . . . 'Tis the persecuting spirit has raised the bantering one."

Lord Shaftesbury


1 I've chosen the term "Intelligence" to distinguish between: