THE BLOG
09/26/2014 08:33 am ET Updated Nov 26, 2014

Why Are Jokes So Perishable?

There are fads and fashions in humor, and most of the world's humor is hopelessly out of fashion. Shakespeare's tragedies are as sad as ever, but his comedies are no longer very funny -- most of them have about as much comedic fizz left as an open bottle of seltzer after a week in the fridge. Ditto with other monuments to comic genius, from Don Quixote to Operation Petticoat: we still bring ourselves to laugh at them, sometimes, but the orgasm of mirth -- when it isn't simply faked -- is usually exaggerated.

Why is humor is so perishable? Why is the shelf life of the average joke closer to that of a package of ground beef than of an incorruptible Twinkie? The answer seems to be that, at any given moment, our sense of humor depends on our sense of incongruity, which in turn depends on all sorts of assumptions about what is and isn't natural and normal. And those assumptions keep changing. An enormous subset of old humor, for example, is no longer very funny because it depends on outdated ideas about sex, the sexes, and the battle of the sexes.

A full-length comedy consists of many jokes, large and small, about all sorts of things whose humor values continue to change. (Bicycles, which nowadays are only faintly funny, were as laughable at first, to many 19th-century skeptics, as Segways in our own time.) It isn't alwaysthe joker's fault if more and more of the jokes fall flat as years go by.

I just compiled a whole encyclopedia of stale American humor, a book about things that used to make us laugh -- anvils, back-seat drivers, chamber pots, door-to-door salesmen, efficiency experts, flappers, gold diggers, hangovers, icemen, just-marrieds, kissing booths, ladies' clubs, mothers-in-law, next-door neighbors, old maids, pie fights, rubbernecking, stenographers, tin cans, ulcers, women drivers, etc. -- but no longer do. Nowadays the funniest thing about most of these obsolete laughingstocks is that our culture ever found them funny. Sometimes it is possible to figure out why they were funny, once upon a time, and why they ceased to be.

Barrels
Barrels were for many centuries the standard vessels for shipping and storing liquids and bulk items like crackers or pickles. Less biodegradeable than cardboard boxes, they were everywhere. A frequent sight in early photographs, they are even commoner in early comics because they were fun to draw, and fun to drop on characters or send rolling up behind them. The most famous barrel gag, though, was the pauper's barrel, hung by suspenders from the shoulders of its penniless and otherwise butt-naked wearer. If a perfect garment fits like a second skin, you can't get much farther from that ideal than a set of overalls made from a pickle barrel. And pants are funny to begin with (pants is one of the few indisputably funny words).

Castor oil
When we no longer laugh at something, it isn't always because our sense of humor has changed. Surely castor oil -- a traumatically bad-tasting laxative forced on whole generations of children, often as a punishment -- would still be comedy gold if it were still in common use. Ditto with pay toilets, chamber pots, and enema bags: objects of scatological hmor cease to be funny only when they're no longer features of everyday life.

Dishwashing husbands
I have an old book of insults that features this zinger in the Henpecked Husbands chapter: "He wears the pants in the house -- under his apron." Not so long ago, wearing an apron was the very opposite of wearing the pants. In the mid-20th-century, in fact, the standard way for a cartoonist to show that a husband was henpecked was to draw him washing dishes in a frilly apron. (Barbecue aprons were different. Barbecuing was considered manly, and was in fact a ritual -- though one that usually misfired -- of male self-sufficiency.) It's unclear if feminism or electric dishwashers had more to do with the decline of this once-ubiquitous sight gag.

Hash
In the slang of 1930s soda jerks -- the wiseguys who referred to prunes as "looseners" and spare ribs as "a first lady" -- roundabout ways of calling for hash included "Clean up the kitchen" and "The gentleman will take a chance." Other slang terms for the substance in its heyday included dog food, gooey, Irish turkey, mystery, slumgudgeon, and the fatalistic yesterday today and forever. The usual joke about hash wasn't its uncertain contents or inedibility but its sheer overfamiliarity: it was served too often by stingy landladies and frugal housewives, and in cheap restaurants referred to a century ago as hash houses, hash foundries, or hash factories.

Hoboes
Throughout the first half of the 20th century, hoboes were a favorite laughingstock, though the laughter they provoked was often uneasy because they were feared as well as scorned. Comic hoboes rode the rails, carried bindlesticks, dreaded bathtubs, ate out of tin cans, stole pies from windowsills, and bullied vulnerable housewives for sandwiches and coffee. They could be kept at bay by ferocious white bulldogs named Spike or Towser, and were sometimes pressed into service beating rugs in exchange for a meal.

Outhouses
Back when indoor plumbing was not so universal, city slickers liked to laugh at the rural alternative -- the smelly drafty wooden shed with the crooked vent pipe, the crescent in the door, and the seat consisting of a hole cut out of a board. (Comic drawings often showed a pair of holes, as if mountain men were fond of defecating side by side.) Vintage cartoon hillbillies are happy with their outhouses. If they accidentally buy a modern toilet from the mail-order catalogue that serves as toilet paper, they are apt to use the seat as a picture frame, the lid as a bread board, and the bowl as a hog trough.

Rape
Which did our grandfathers laugh at more in public, flatulence or rape? The answer is rape, and the contest wasn't close. Harpo literally chases women in each of the first four Marx Bros movies. Most early Popeye cartoons climax with an attempted rape, as do most early Betty Boop cartoons. It may sound jarring to call Bluto a rapist, but what else is he planning to do with Olive Oyl when he snatches her and bears her off against her will? Ostensibly the function of these sequences is suspense and not humor, but the silliness of the cartoon world inevitably spreads to the abduction scenes: poor Olive is never more ludicrous than when carried off kicking and screaming.

Rolling pins
There was a time when American humor consisted to an alarming degree of brainless people braining one another. The second-most popular sight gag in early comic strips (very common too in silent comedies) was the angry hausfrau brandishing a rolling pin at her husband as he staggered in blissfully drunk at four in the morning. The only gag more popular was the policeman hitting a bum on the head with a nightstick. The rolling pin as weapon is associated now with the long-running comic strip Bringing up Father, whose long-suffering millionaire hero Jiggs was clobbered so often by his spouse that in a 1919 strip he bought a rolling-pin factory in order to shut it down.

Christopher Miller is the author of American Cornball.