and indifferent way, with the pretense that he does not know it
is a nub.
Artemus Ward used that trick a good deal; then when the belated audience
presently caught the joke he would look up with innocent surprise,
as if wondering what they had found to laugh at. Dan Setchell
used it before him, Nye and Riley and others use it today.
But the teller of the comic story does not slur the nub;
he shouts it at you–every time. And when he prints it,
in England, France, Germany, and Italy, he italicizes it,
puts some whopping exclamation-points after it, and sometimes
explains it in a parenthesis. All of which is very depressing,
and makes one want to renounce joking and lead a better life.
Let me set down an instance of the comic method, using an anecdote
which has been popular all over the world for twelve or fifteen
hundred years. The teller tells it in this way:
THE WOUNDED SOLDIER
In the course of a certain battle a soldier whose leg had been shot off
appealed to another soldier who was hurrying by to carry him to the rear,
informing him at the same time of the loss which he had sustained;
whereupon the generous son of Mars, shouldering the unfortunate,
proceeded to carry out his desire. The bullets and cannon-balls
were flying in all directions, and presently one of the latter
took the wounded man’s head off–without, however, his deliverer
being aware of it. In no long time he was hailed by an officer,
“Where are you going with that carcass?”
“To the rear, sir–he’s lost his leg!”
“His leg, forsooth?” responded the astonished officer; “you mean
his head, you booby.”
Whereupon the soldier dispossessed himself of his burden, and stood
looking down upon it in great perplexity. At length he said:
“It is true, sir, just as you have said.” Then after a pause he added,
“BUT HE TOLD ME IT WAS HIS LEG!!!!!”
Here the narrator bursts into explosion after
explosion of thunderous horse-laughter, repeating that
nub from time to time through his gasping and shriekings and suffocatings.
It takes only a minute and a half to tell that in its comic-story form;
and isn’t worth the telling, after all. Put into the humorous-story
form it takes ten minutes, and is about the funniest thing I have
ever listened to–as James Whitcomb Riley tells it.
He tells it in the character of a dull-witted old farmer who has
just heard it for the first time, thinks it is unspeakably funny,
and is trying to repeat it to a neighbor. But he can’t remember it;
so he gets all mixed up and wanders helplessly round and round,
putting in tedious details that don’t belong in the tale and only
retard it; taking them out conscientiously and putting in others
that are just as useless; making minor mistakes now and then
and stopping to correct them and explain how he came to make them;
remembering things which he forgot to put in in their proper place
and going back to put them in there; stopping his narrative a good
while in order to try to recall the name of the soldier that was hurt,
and finally remembering that the soldier’s name was not mentioned,
and remarking placidly that the name is of no real importance, anyway–
better, of course, if one knew it, but not essential, after all–
and so on, and so on, and so on.
The teller is innocent and happy and pleased with himself,
and has to stop every little while to hold himself in and keep
from laughing outright; and does hold in, but his body quakes
in a jelly-like way with interior chuckles; and at the end of the
ten minutes the audience have laughed until they are exhausted,
and the tears are running down their faces.
The simplicity and innocence and sincerity and unconsciousness
of the old farmer are perfectly simulated, and the result
is a performance which is thoroughly charming and delicious.
This is art–and fine and beautiful, and only a master can compass it;
but a machine could tell the other story.
To string incongruities and absurdities together in a wandering
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