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joke be judged by its intent or by its consequences? Is a joke that does not produce a laugh a joke at all? Pragmatically con sidered it is not. Agnes Repplier, writing on Humor, speaks of "those beloved writers whom we hold to be humorists because they have made us laugh." We hold them to be so--but there seems to be a suggestion that we may be wrong. Is it possible that the laugh is not the test of the joke? Here is a question ́over which the philosophers may wrangle. Is there an Absolute in the realm of humor, or must our jokes be judged solely by the pragmatic test? Congreve once told Colly Cibber that there were many witty speeches in one of Colly's plays, and many that looked witty, yet were not really what they seemed at first sight! So a joke is not to be recognized even by its appearance or by the company it keeps. Perhaps there might be established a test of good usage. A joke would be that at which the best people laugh.
Somebody-was it Mark Twain?-o -once said that there are eleven original jokes in the world that these were known in prehistoric times, and that all jokes since have been but modifications and adaptations from the originals. Miss Repplier, however, gives to modern times the credit for some inventiveness. Christianity, she says, must be thanked for such contributions as the missionary and cannibal joke, and for the interminable variations of St. Peter at the gate. Max Beerbohm once codified all the English comic papers and found that the following list comprised all the subjects discussed: Mothers-in-law; Hen-pecked husbands; Twins; Old maids; Jews; Frenchmen and Germans; Italians and Niggers; Fatness; Thinness; Long hair (in men); Baldness; Sea sickness; Stuttering; Bloomers; Bad cheese; Red noses. A like examination of American newspapers would perhaps result in a slightly different list. We have, of course, our purely local jokes. Boston will always be a joke to Chicago, the east to the west. The city girl in the country offers a perennial source of amusement, as does the country man in the city. And the foreigner we have always with us, to mix his Y's and J's, distort his H's, and play havoc with the Anglo-Saxon Th. Indeed our great American sense of humor has been explained as an outgrowth from the vast field of incongruities offered by a developing civilization.
It may be that this vaunted national sense has been overestimated-exaggeration is a characteristic of that humor, any way but at least it has one of the Christian virtues-it suffereth long and is kind. Miss Repplier says that it is because we are a "humorous rather than a witty people that we laugh for the most part with, and not at our fellow creatures." This, I think is something that our fellow creatures from other lands do not always comprehend. I listened once to a distinguished Frenchman as he addressed the students in a western university chapel He was evidently astounded and embarrassed by the outbursts of laughter that greeted his mildly humorous remarks. He even stopped to apologize for the deficiencies of his English, deeming them the cause, and was further mystified by the little ripple of laughter that met his explanation-a ripple that came from the hearts of the good-natured students, who meant only to be appreciative and kind. Foreigners, too, unacquainted with American slang often find themselves precipitating a laugh for which they are unprepared. For a bit of current slang, however and whenever used, is always humorous.
The American is not only a humorous person, he is a practical person. So it is only natural that the American humor should be put to practical uses. It was once said that the difference between a man with tact and a man without was that the man with tact, in trying to put a bit in a horse's mouth, would first tell him a funny story, while the man without tact would get an axe. This use of the funny story is the American way of adapting it to practical ends. A collection of funny stories used to be an important part of a drummer's stock in trade. It is by means of the "good story" that the politician makes his way into office; the business man paves the way for a big deal; the after-dinner speaker gets a hearing; the hostess saves her guests from boredom. Such a large place does the "story" hold in our national life that we have invented a social pastime that might be termed a "joke match." "Don't tell a funny story, even if you know one," was the advice of the Atchison Globe man, "its narration will only remind your hearers of a bad one." True as this may be, we still persist in telling our funny story. Our hearers are reminded of another, good or bad, which again reminds us--and so on.
A sense of humor, as was intimated before, is the chiefest
of the virtues. It is more than this-it is one of the essentials to success. For, as has also been pointed out, we, being a practical people, put our humor to practical uses. It is held up as one of the prerequisites for entrance to any profession. "A lawyer," says a member of that order, must have such and such mental and moral qualities; "but before all else"-and this impressively "he must possess a sense of humor." Samuel McChord Crothers says that were he on the examining board for the granting of certificates to prospective teachers, he would place a copy of Lamb's essay on Schoolmasters in the hands of each, and if the light of humorous appreciation failed to dawn as the reading progressed, the certificate would be withheld. For, before all else, a teacher must possess a sense of humor! If it be true, then, that the sense of humor is so important in determining the choice of a profession, how wise are those writers who hold it an essential for entrance into that most exacting of professions-matrimony! "Incompatibility in humor," George Eliot held to be the "most serious cause of diversion." And Stevenson, always wise, insists that husband and wife must be able to laugh over the same jokes-have between them many a "grouse in the gun-room" story. But there must always be exceptions if the spice of life is to be preserved, and I recall one couple of my acquaintance, devoted and loyal in spite of this very incompatibility. A man with a highly whimsical sense of humor had married a woman with none. Yet he told his best stories with an eye to their effect on her, and when her response came, peaceful and placid and non-comprehending, he would look about the table with delight, as much as to say, "Isn't she a wonder? Do you know her equal?"
Humor may be the greatest of the virtues, yet it is the one of whose possession we may boast with impunity. "Well, that was too much for my sense of humor," we say. Or, "You know my sense of humor was always my strong point." Imagine thus boasting of one's integrity, or sense of honor! And so is its lack the one vice of which one may not permit himself to be a trifle proud. "I admit that I have a hot temper," and "I know I'm extravagant," are simple enough admissions. But did any one ever openly make the confession, "I know I am lacking in a sense of humor!" However, to recognize the lack one would first have to possess the sense-which is manifestly impossible.
"To explain the nature of laughter and tears is to account for the condition of human life," says Hazlitt, and no philosophy has as yet succeeded in accounting for the condition of human life. "Man is a laughing animal," wrote Meredith, "and at the end of infinite search the philosopher finds himself clinging to laughter as the best of human fruit, purely human, and sane, and comforting." So whether it be the corrective laughter of Bergson, Jove laughing at lovers' vows, Love laughing at locksmiths, or the cheerful laughter of the fool that was like the crackling of thorns to Koheleth, the preacher, we recognize that it is good; that without this saving grace of humor life would be an empty vaunt. I like to recall that ancient usage: "The skie hangs full of humour, and I think we shall haue raine." Blessed humor, no less refreshing today than was the humour of old to a parched and thirsty earth.
Before making any specific suggestions to the prospective toaster or toastmaster, let us advise that he consider well the nature and spirit of the occasion which calls for speeches. The toast, after-dinner talk, or address is always given under conditions that require abounding good humor, and the desire to make everybody pleased and comfortable as well as to furnish entertainment should be uppermost.
Perhaps a consideration of the ancient custom that gave rise to the modern toast will help us to understand the spirit in which a toast should be given. It originated with the pagan custom of drinking to gods and the dead, which in Christian nations was modified, with the accompanying idea of a wish for health and happiness added. In England during the sixteenth century it was customary to put a "toast" in the drink, which was usually served hot. This toast was the ordinary piece of bread scorched on both sides. Shakespeare in "The Merry Wives of Windsor" has Falstaff say, “Fetch me a quart of sack and put a toast in 't." Later the term came to be applied to the lady in whose honor the company drank, her name serving to flavor the bumper as the toast flavored the drink. It was in this way that the act of drinking or of proposing a health, or the mere act of expressing good wishes or fellowship at table came to be known as toasting.
Since an occasion, then, at which toasts are in order is one intended to promote good feeling, it should afford no opportunity for the exploitation of any personal or selfish interest or for anything controversial, or antagonistic to any of the company present. The effort of the toastmaster should be to promote the best of feeling among all and especially between speakers. And speakers should cooperate with the toastmaster and with each other to that end. The introductions of the toastmaster