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Chapter Eleven. Get Personal > Why people laugh

Why people laugh

Why do people laugh? What makes something funny? Why do equally intelligent people have such different senses of humor? Comedy writers, psychologists, and others have dissected humor and debated these questions. One thing we know is that people of different cultures have different ideas of what's funny. Americans may find the humor of Britons almost pointless, whereas Britons think American humor is unsubtle. An Englishman visiting an American farm was told by the farmer, ''We don't waste anything. We eat everything we can, and what we cannot eat, we can.'' All the Americans in the group laughed. When the Englishman returned home, he tried to repeat the play on words to a friend. It came out ''We consume what we are able. What we cannot, we tin.'' Something, as the saying goes, was lost in translation.

I usually don't include jokes in speeches I write. I much prefer humorous sidelights, comments, and one-liners. In the first place, telling a joke well is not easy, and some speakers shouldn't even try. In the second place, using a joke to make a serious point can backfire. It can detract from the point it is supposed to make. Even so, if you, or the speaker you're writing for, are a skillful joke teller, and if you have one you're certain is appropriate, don't let my comments discourage you from putting it in.


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