Crawling Back

Sometimes a plausible-sounding phrase grips the nation, and manages to persuade people, even though a moment’s rumination reveals it to be pure nonsense. When I was young, for example, people who didn’t want to wear seatbelts would always say, “I’d rather be thrown clear of the accident.” Of course this made no sense. That’s not how accidents work, and being thrown is exactly what you should seek to avoid. If we were talking about a meteor strike you might want to be “thrown clear”; but no one was talking about a meteor strike.

“I’d rather be thrown clear of the accident” is much rarer now than it was in the 1980s, but our era has its fair share of likely phrases, such as: “You think x is funny?” It works like this: Someone makes a joke about leprosy; someone else cuts the laughter with a withering sneer, and the phrase, “You think leprosy is funny?”

This accusation is unanswerable, in the sense that Tweedledum is always unanswerable. But of course the answer is no, leprosy is a horrible disease and not funny. No, more importantly, because jokes don’t work that way. A joke about leprosy doesn’t necessarily mean that leprosy is funny, any more than chickens or roads are funny. We often make jokes about things that we do not find funny, because joking about them helps us deal with them. Death isn’t funny, but to assume that no joke involving death has ever been funny would be to do a great disservice to the Weekend at Bernie’s franchise.

Stopping to explain how jokes work is tedious and time consuming, and it’s easier to just shut up and let the sourpuss win. No more jokes about leprosy, friends! Only jokes about butterflies from now on. And all because the sourpuss had a facile, compact phrase to conceal the real meaning of: “I insist that I be appointed the one in charge over what you say, and it wouldn’t be much of appointment if I didn’t exercise my power, so you’d better start flattering my whims now.”

You think killing your wife is funny? What kind of monster are you?

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