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Joker’s wild – ‘The Importance of Being Funny’

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New book explores the human need for humor and jokes

“Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies from it.”

-      E.B. White

Unless you’re one of those tragic souls with no sense of humor, you have a pretty good idea of what’s funny. That might be different from what I find funny, while someone else might be different from both of us. Funny is subjective.

It’s also important.

That’s the thesis of Al Gini’s new book “The Importance of Being Funny: Why We Need More Jokes in Our Lives” (Rowman & Littlefield, $19.95). While he doesn’t try to determine the mechanisms of comedy, he does attempt to explore the idea of why comedy matters to us in the first place. Call it the philosophy of funny.

Gini’s stock-in-trade isn’t comedy. It’s philosophy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there’s a fair degree of overlap between the two disciplines.

Over the course of half-a-dozen breezy, quick-reading chapters, Gini digs into the notion of humor and offers some insight as to how very important it is to the human experience. There’s a little bit of nuts-and-bolts stuff – talk about structure and foundational tenets and whatnot of jokes – but from there, things pretty quickly move in more pop philosophical directions.

To give you an idea, Chapter 3 is titled “Comedy and Coping with Reality.” It explores the idea that jokes and joke telling are a sort of existential safety valve, a way for us to take some kind of charge over things we cannot control or even understand. Truth to power can often be easiest expressed via humor; it’s a way to discuss the deep and dangerous in a relatively low-risk fashion.

Other ideas explored include the concept of the dirty/tasteless/ethnic/otherwise offensive joke, and how there are numerous contexts that drastically influence their impacts – some that are obvious, others not so much. From there, it’s a logical leap to the consideration of ethics in humor, so Gini has a conversation with a colleague about the ethical ramifications of certain types of jokes and what that can mean, both in terms of the teller and the told.

Gini also introduces us to the term “philogagging,” that aforementioned notion of overlap between the realms of philosophy and comedy. A longtime professor, Gini has taken to using jokes to describe his classes and to grab attention and interest via jokes in his lectures. Jokes are the gateway he uses to engage.

And in case you were wondering – yes, there are jokes. A lot of jokes. You’ve got long ones and short ones, knock-knock jokes and shaggy dog stories. Some of them are OK, others approach dad-joke groaner territory. There are even a few that are pretty good.

If “The Importance of Being Funny” sounds a bit academic, well … that’s because it is a bit academic. Not overwhelmingly so – this isn’t some sort of scholarly work – but it’s treating its ideas with intellectual respect.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t readable.

Gini’s writing has a geniality that works nicely with a tricky subject to examine. He’s found a narrow window in which to operate, one in which he’s able to treat his explorations seriously without taking them TOO seriously. His passionate connection with the ideas being expressed goes a long way toward imbuing the book with an energy that it would fall flat without.

If you love comedy and have ever wondered WHY you love it, “The Importance of Being Funny” is for you. It’s a thoughtful and thought-provoking read … and it’s even got a few laughs.

“The duty of comedy is to correct men by amusing them.” - Moliere

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