What's Funny and What's Not?

What's Funny and What's Not?
by Stanley C. Baldwin

April Fools Day has murky origins, and there are many colorful legends about how it came to be. Some of the tales are April Fools jokes themselves. What we know is that people have practiced hi-jinks on April 1st since ancient times, just as humans have also enjoyed a long love affair with humor in general.
Ancient monarchs had court jesters, sometimes called fools, who were highly valued for their ability to make the king laugh. Those who weren't all that funny risked their positions and sometimes their heads. Today, skillful humorists and comedians are among our highest paid entertainers. We love to laugh.
Over the years imaginative people have come up with many clever and funny April Fools stunts. One favorite, described in museumofhoaxes.com, is the April 1, 1998 full page newspaper ad by Burger King that introduced the "Left-handed Whopper." All of the condiments were rotated 180 degrees for the 32 million lefties in America. Great numbers of people ordered the new Whoppers, while other customers specified they wanted the original Whopper. Filling the different orders was easy since there was absolutely no difference between the two.
Imaginative April Fools "news" items have featured pickle farming and instructions on how to grow spaghetti (you plant it in tomato sauce). One item reported a scandal--the use of performance enhancing steroids by concert violinists. (No doubt most offenses were by bass violinists.) And then there was the report of a high tech breakthrough resulting in software to translate dog barks into English.
All of these gags roped in huge numbers of people, all in good fun. Such harmless humor is a great gift, but the operative word here is harmless. On April 1, 1999 a Bend, Oregon radio station said the Ochoco dam had burst and residents downstream needed to evacuate immediately. The panic that ensued was perhaps funny to the perpetrators, but it was cruel to the down-streamers.
Thoughtless or mean stunts not only take the fun out of the day but they have also led to serious consequences not only for the victims but also for the perpetrators, some of who have lost their jobs or been sued.
Getting our laughs to other people's detriment is more cruel than funny, whether on April 1 or any other date. Often such humor is mean-spirited, as when radio talk show host Don Imus called the Rutgers women's basketball team "nappy-headed hos" (whores). Or when Ann Coulter said (in jest?) that liberals are godless, stupid, traitors, and Commies.
Laughing at others can be hurtful even when it is innocent. When Miranda Baldwin was four years old, her grandmother, who had taught her to take care of her clothes, asked one day, "Miranda, are your clothes all hanging up?" Miranda nodded very seriously, then paused, "Well, actually, they are hanging down."
Her grandmother burst out laughing until Miranda scowled and said, "Girls aren't funny, Grandma!" Her grandmother realized that the child felt ridiculed and disrespected. Instead of disallowing the child's feelings or simply telling her to lighten up, Grandma was kind enough to honor those feelings and control her amusement.
Like almost everything else in our society, humor can be used to serve people or to abuse them. Seems like it should be a simple choice.

Stanley C. Baldwin is president of Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Humans. To enter the Society's April Fools contest go to: www.preventcrueltytohumans.com and click on April Fools Contest.