Getting the joke

I have always been interested in what makes things funny. I had an essay published in my high school literary journal called “A Definition of Wit and Humor” and I wrote my dissertation on the linguistic structure of humor. So it’s not too surprising that I distinctly remember one of the first jokes I “got.” I must have been in kindergarten or first grade, and in those days we all had to wear dresses to school—well, all of us who were girls, that is. The boys could be blissfully happy, dirty, and active in their jeans. Wearing a dress made playing on the monkey bars a challenge, since I was just learning how to hang by my knees, do somersaults that flipped me over and down the slide, jump out of swings, and other stuff that was not so easy to do in a little dress –especially if I wanted to achieve the biggest goal of all—not letting the boys achieve what seemed to be their biggest goal—seeing my underpants.

Like most little girls of the day, I had been assiduously taught to keep my legs together when I sat. I can remember having contests with my friends to see who could sit on a chair and keep their legs tight against each other the longest. It hurt! My mother once taught my Sunday School class when I was about four, and, while holding a picture of Jesus, stopped the story of feeding the 5,000 to tell me to put my legs together and to comment, “Barbara, all the boys are looking up your dress!”

So it was particularly amazing to me that my very same mother told me the joke in question:

Once there was a little girl named Suzie whose mother warned her over and over again about not playing on the monkey bars, because the boys wanted to see her underwear. One day Suzie came home to say that a boy had given her a quarter to hang by her knees. “Oh, Suzie, don’t you know he was just trying to see your underpants?” her mother said. “I know,” the little girl said proudly, “But I fooled him—I didn’t wear any.”

You can imagine the effect this joke had on me! It was titillating. It was thrilling. I didn’t know it then, but it was a joke that could illustrate every humor theory I would later study–from incongruity, to hostility, to linguistic script opposition to Freudian sexual humor. And it had to be a socially acceptable joke, because my very own mother had shared it with me, actually giggling as she did so!

I now realize that at least part of what I liked about that joke was that Suzie took control. She was not a silent, passive participant in a ridiculous system that restricted little girls. She wanted to hang by her knees, and by golly she did—and got a quarter out of it, to boot.

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