My freshman seminar students have been reading, writing, and thinking about the role humor plays in human societies, so this morning I asked them to respond to roll call by briefly stating something that is Definitely Not Funny. They came up with some obvious ones: dust is not funny; pain is not funny; migraines that prevent you from doing assignments are Definitely Not Funny.
One student said lightbulbs are not funny, which is probably true, but then why are there so many how-many-whatevers-does-it-take-to-screw-in-a-lightbulb jokes? We agreed that lightbulbs may be the occasion for humor, but the lightbulb qua lightbulb simply isn't funny.
One student finds Jesus jokes Not Funny and another strongly objects to vegetarian jokes. "They're offensive," she said. "They make me so upset I have to leave." And yet when she said "vegetarian jokes," everyone laughed, suggesting that humor, as we have already discovered on many other occasions, is pretty subjective.
One student said, "Making the freshmen soccer players clean the team bus after an away game is Definitely Not Funny," but I asked him whether it might look more amusing from a distance, when he and his fellow sufferers get together at their 25th reunion and start talking about old times. "Will you ever laugh at this experience?" I asked, and he cracked a smile. "We're already planning revenge," he said. "That'll be funny."
So what did we learn from this experience? Nothing terribly earthshaking, but it did confirm the importance of context to humor. Broken cell phones, for instance, are Definitely Not Funny, but when a classmate whose cell-phone struggles are already legendary brings up the topic, everyone laughs. Indeed, that was the most interesting thing about the experiment: no matter how unfunny the stated items were, they made people laugh.
Now that's funny.