Seriously, some people just can't get a joke

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Did you hear the one about the People's Daily in Beijing reprinting a story from The Onion about North Korea's Kim Jong Un being the "Sexiest Man Alive"?

Darn, I thought I had that title. But it seems that the Chinese Communist Party's official organ did not realize that The Onion is run by capitalist-running-dog satirists who make up stuff for the amusement of the American masses, such as the following about Mr. Kim:

"With his devastatingly handsome, round face, his boyish charm and his strong, sturdy frame, this Pyongyang-bred heartthrob is every woman's dream come true," The Onion said, adding that Mr. Kim had "an unmistakable cute, cuddly side."

How dumb can those Chinese be, taking that seriously? Cuddly indeed! Hey, I am cuddly, too (cute may be a stretch). Still, it's nice that we capitalist roaders have the last laugh on the comedy-averse commies. Ha, ha, ha.

Unfortunately, I once wrote a column about North Korea that was similarly misunderstood -- and the Chinese had nothing to do with it. No, my uncomprehending reader was an American who couldn't get a joke if a platoon of clowns were to parachute into his backyard to deliver it.

That was in 2002, and George W. Bush -- a name some of you may not remember because his presidency had the unfortunate side-effect of triggering mass amnesia -- had just declared the existence of the Axis of Evil, with North Korea as one of its members.

This being a gift of the satirical gods, I happily wrote a column about it with the usual clues that humor was lurking in the vicinity -- or so I thought, silly me.

As I wrote then of the current Mr. Kim's dad (his next of Kim, so to speak), "The credit for North Korea being included in the Axis of Evil must go to North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il, who proves the old adage that some are born to great evildoing and some have great evildoing thrust upon them."

But one reader suffering from HDS -- humor deprivation syndrome -- took my words as a serious endorsement of the people's penitentiary that is North Korea.

He did not say what attribute of North Korea I liked best -- the torture or the starvation -- but unencumbered as he was by irony, satire, sarcasm or any notion of ridicule or wit, he was convinced that I was defending the indefensible.

He was just one reader and I only remember him now because of the world-class stupidity that went into his email. But over the years I have seen this lofty level of chronic humorlessness exceeded on many occasions and on many different topics. If I didn't laugh, I'd have to cry.

Now, it is true that humor is subjective and people's tastes differ. What may be funny to me, may seem like a funeral to you. I get that. But at least smart people understand when a joke is being attempted.

Not so some of the people who contact me. They read my stuff literally. They are shocked to be told that leg-pulling is not restricted to chiropractors anymore and that sometimes tomfoolery wanders into newspaper columns without the permission of Tom.

The best is when earnestly humorless people write a point-by-point rebuttal of my more obvious nonsense, which is about the same thing as confronting a clown in a red nose and giant shoes and listing what is wrong with his outfit. That always amuses me even if it doesn't amuse them.

My problem is that the more extreme a person becomes in his or her politics -- both left and right -- the more removed they are from the realm of merriment and mirth. It is no surprise that actual communists are baffled by humor; their polar opposites in American conservative ranks are similarly out of laughs.

It didn't used to be this way. Americans have lost the ability to laugh at themselves, which is the first requirement before laughing at anyone or anything else.

Although Jon Stewart regularly proves that politics can be funny, I conclude from my own observations that humor deprivation syndrome has reached epidemic proportions, spread by the germs of bitter partisanship. The partisan mind can operate on only one level, whereas the comprehension of jokes requires several levels of the brain to think contrary thoughts at the same time.

It's a shame that fewer and fewer people can master that trick -- because many a true word is spoken in jest, and I'm not joking.

But I write as one with a cute, cuddly side, and it is possible I may be joking about that.

reghenry

Reg Henry: rhenry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1668.


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