The Need of a New Joke

THE wilderness is full of prophets, each crying out his conviction as to the most pressing demand of the hour. We are told that we need a new faith, a new social system, a new political machinery at home, a new national policy abroad, a new literature of our own, and a reform in dress. In spite of the length of the list, one fundamental lack has not been mentioned. No one has pointed out our need of a new joke.

We are weary of the old ones. It is sad to find again in fresh print the worn pleasantries about the master of the house who comes home late and is unable to fit his latchkey; about the new woman and the new man ; about the countryman with his antiquated carpetbag in the perils of the town ; about the nose of the Jewish clothes dealer; about woman’s fear of a mouse; about the poor restaurant; about the tramp and the pie ; about the quarrels of husband and wife ; about the Irishman and politics; about the negro and the henroost ; about seasickness; about kissing ; about Queen Victoria; and about the mother-in-law. We and our fathers before us have laughed patiently at them all. There is ancient authority for saying that there is a time to weep as well as a time to laugh, and perhaps nothing more imperatively calls for tears than this constant dropping of old jokes, inquisition-wise, upon the mind.

Weariness of the old humor is not the only reason for our demand for the new. Deeper than the sin of repetition is the sin of not showing profound insight into the incongruities of things. On the part of nation and of individual the depth of humorous insight measures the depth of appreciation of life. The witticisms of the fool in Lear and of the grave-diggers in Hamlet show not only Shakespeare’s sense of the comic, but also Shakespeare’s keenest sense of the tragic. Molière’s trenchant wit amounts to a philosophy in its criticism of false ideals. Perhaps nothing more fatally betrays the eclecticism of our American character than an examination of our famous American humor. Any list of our most popular jokes will prove to be a series of chance shots, betraying neither conviction nor steadfast perception, only a momentary sense of the superficial incongruities of life.

There are, of course, exceptions. Certain touches of satire in our comic papers suggest an underlying thought that we could not spare. We would keep the wistful pictures of the little street Arabs, and all glimpses into the heart of poverty that mean a stirring of our national conscience. It is well for laughter to be touched with tears. We would keep the satire on foreign fads and fashions, such as the worship of foreign adventurers, religious or secular, and the marriage that means the cry of American money for European titles. We would keep all shrewd comments on our besetting national sins, from the working of machine politics to the details of our late war in the interests of humanity. Many are the manifestations of our folly, and " the chastening stripes should cleanse them all.”

In fact, it is for further work of this kind that we plead, for deeper manifestation of a central common sense, for humor with a larger consciousness in it. Possibly, we need not so much a new joke as a new joker. It is no accident that great periods in bygone days boast great humorists, men of deep laughter who helped set straight the world, — Aristophanes, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Molière. Listening to them, we are aware of a sense of incongruity that has permanent value, full of intellectual keenness or of sympathy, and we know that there is demanded of us, not the random laughter of fools, but the collected laughter of the sane. No country ever offered a richer opportunity for a satirist than America offers now. Where shall we find him ?

“ When the true jester comes, how shall we know him ? ” By the keenness of his vision, and the power of his thinking, and the quiver of his lips when he smiles.