Yesterday I was looking through a few collections of humorous stories. Tales of laughter, edited by Kate Douglas Wiggin and Nora Archibald Smith, was published in 1908. Famous tales and laughter stories, prepared by the University Society and the After School Club of America, was published in 1912. Great folktales of wit and humor, edited by James R. Foster, was published in 1955.
As I read through these, I didn't find one story that I would be interested in telling. There were many I recognized, a few I already tell (primarily in Tales of Laughter), but most just weren't funny enough. Some were preachy (especially in Famous tales), some were boring, some were the kind of humor that puts down a class or group of people. Some were just plain dated.
That made me wonder what I find funny in stories. Definitely word plays and twists of understanding, such as in Master of all masters, in which the master uses his own particular words for ordinary objects, or the Tale of the Squire's bride, in which the pompous squire isn't specific about what he wants when giving his boy orders. Bizarre combinations or events, such as the marriage of the chicken and the cockroach in Poule and Blatte. The victory of the traditionally powerless, as in all the stories about the baby I tell. Gentle breaking of taboos, as in Robert Munsch's story We share everything. Unexpected endings, surprises, such as the end of the story of cat and mouse and the butter ("So cat ate mouse, and from that day to this, cats and mice have NOT been good friends.").
I started looking at theories of humor. What could be less funny than a theory about humor? I found this quote from George Boeree, that humor is "the sudden awareness of an alternative construction of a distressful situation which dissipates (to some extent) that distress" Huh? Here's a more digestible quote from Tom Veatch: "Humor occurs when something is wrong that you care about, but everything is actually okay, and only occurs if you see (and feel) both views at the same time."
Is that true? I'll have to think about it.